This mission is bigger than just saving Channel 4
Channel 4’s CEO argues that it can grow its impact and become even more of a catalyst for the health of the UK’s creative economy
Let me be clear about one thing from the start: I do not want to save Channel 4.
Yes, you read that correctly.
I know that people throughout British society are desperate to save C4. The extraordinarily creative people who make its programmes want to save it. Politicians who recognise the irreplaceable value of its unique status want to save it.
And most of all, millions of people who love its news, its documentaries, its comedy, its drama, its programmes that fit in no easy genre, want to save it. An audience that relishes, even if they do not know of, its remit to represent the unrepresented and give voice to the unheard, wants to save it. (At least, those who are aware of the proposals to change it want to and we have published the data that shows that.)
But I’m not interested in salvation. It’s not enough.
Why I am not looking to be a saviour
Let me explain. I share the Government’s view: it is crucial to the future of the UK’s creative economy – which is in turn crucial to the future of the UK’s overall economy and to its standing in the world – to take a long view of C4.
Those who care about this country should certainly look over a distant horizon to find the best way of doing the amazing, the matchless, things that C4 does, far into the future.
But let me be clear in case I am misunderstood: my confidence in the future of this organisation means that I do not want to ‘save’ Channel 4 because ‘saving’ it is not enough.
I am only interested in growing our impact, making more, doing more for British audiences, and being even more of a catalyst for the health of the UK's creative economy.
Together with the board and executive of C4, I want to take it far, far forward, not just build a wall around it and preserve it. Change comes naturally to us because it is the inevitable result of our remit and our place in the landscape.
They say that if there is one benefit to the prospect of execution it is to concentrate the mind on life to date and the immediate future. While we are assured by Government that we are not in peril of our existence, nonetheless we have concentrated our minds.
But in doing so we have also looked way out into the future, confident that there will be a very bright one. We have looked at what C4 does now and what it could do if, instead of looking at how it can be ‘saved’, we now plan for it to be, simply, more.
As part of its consultation document and in a number of subsequent statements, the Government has made it clear that it wants to protect and assure the future role of C4. And it has said that C4 goes beyond being what it is now: a critical part of Britain’s much-admired, never-matched television industry.
A new law of TV thermodynamics?
But, as competition for ‘content’ – its nature selected and driven by algorithms – grows, is it inevitable that quality rises? Or is it more likely that quality falls as quantity rises? Creative choices made on the back of algorithmic choices will not be enough to satisfy British tastes. What works for the world is not enough for our audiences.
Indeed, it is right there where opportunity lies, not just for us, but for that vast supply chain we rely on and which relies on us.
We already exploit that opportunity of course, with shows such as Gogglebox, or dramas like It’s A Sin. These are quintessentially British: made by Brits, for Brits on issues that resonate with Brits. Local telly that in each case can also go global. A multinational streamer makes things from the other way round: maximum width and minimum depth.
Naturally, we have to find ways to make the right investments, build the right technologies and support the right makers so that our beautiful British garden of creation is not strangled by invasive species.
And we are already doing it. Not for profit. For the value it adds to our offer, an offer to all, for free and universally available. The US Open tennis final deal with Amazon in September was a significant investment, for instance, but it allowed everyone in Britain the chance to be in on a conversation that otherwise would have been closed and exclusive – in the worst meaning of that word.
While others commercial broadcasters may quake at the prospect of reliance on advertising income, we don’t.
Our progress on transforming from airtime to digital advertising markets is, to borrow a phrase, world-beating. I doubt anyone would be warning Facebook and Google that their business models are in danger from disruption, yet they rely on advertising for almost all of their revenue. It is, as always in this industry, about your share. We are growing our share and we are confident that the trend in that is up, not down. Most analysts agree with us.
Who will buy C4 and what will they give in return?
Yet what makes C4 so attractive to buyers is not giving more to Britain. If they are a domestic buyer, it is the prospect of a taking out costs through combination-cuts and having a monopoly position on advertising, which in turn would make a combined UK commercial public-service broadcaster incredibly attractive to the global aggregators of content.
I’m not sure many people have noticed the potential danger of losing everything but the BBC to foreign ownership if there were an ITV-C4 combination, for instance. It would probably not cost a US giant more than a few months’ revenues to pull off.
If the proposed buyer is alternatively one of those US ‘content-farmer’ megaliths, the appeal of buying C4 is getting a ready-made audience of young Britons, of an edgy brand, backed up by the most advanced approach to digital advertising in the world.
So C4’s market value depends either on the value of monopoly, which in turn depends on abandoning the principles on which advertising air time is sold, or on continuing the remit exactly as it is today: because, make no mistake, our points of difference which have created the young audience, the edgy brand, even the success of our digital ad business, are all inextricably bound to that remit to be different and innovative.
So you can see why we think that these decisions are of profound importance to the UK media landscape. And why, without a clear wider vision for public service media that only a government can provide, whether it’s really possible to decide what the most effective future status of C4 ought to be?
To use a more C4 metaphor, are we not asking bakers to "on your marks, get set...bake" without telling them whether they are to make a sandwich, a loaf or a showstopper?
Alex Mahon is CEO of Channel 4
This is an edited version of an essay featured in the upcoming book What Price Channel 4 Now? (Updated 2021 edition). It is available to buy on Amazon from 18 October and features contributions from the historian David Olusoga, the ex-Observer editor-in-chief Will Hutton, and former Channel 5 CEO David Elstein.