The outgoing managing director of upmarket grocery chain Waitrose Mark Price has quit his job after 33 years amid reports he is being lined up as the new Channel 4 chairman. Price, known as the “Chubby Grocer”, has been Channel 4’s deputy chairman since July 2013. Last month, Channel 4 chairman Lord Burns announced he would be stepping down in January at the end of his second term after ministers rejected his proposal to oversee the transformation of the broadcaster into a mutually owned not-for-profit channel. The move appeared to suggest that ministers could be in favor of privatizing Channel 4 completely — a move which would generate a much-needed financial windfall for the company but also sure to unleash a backlash. Channel 4 has long been a champion of diverse, edgy programming and any move to privatize would lead to fears of commercialization and homogenization.
The deadline for applicants for the Channel 4 chairman role closes in November and Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, intends to have appointed a successor before the end of Burns’ tenure. Ofcom had originally said it was in favor of Burns’ staying on for an additional interim year post the expiration of his term on January 27 to help oversee the change in the channel’s structure. Burns was in favor of mutualization, by which Channel 4 would have been removed from public ownership without being sold to the highest bidder plans. Other options include privatizing Channel 4 fully or keeping the hybrid structure as is with the channel a state-owned broadcaster but funded almost entirely by advertising.
Channel 4 has been valued at up to $1.5 billion if fully privatized. Mutualization is believed to be the favored option by Channel 4 execs, owned essentially by joint shareholders such as production companies and even members of the public, and keeping its public broadcaster remit. Such a structure would be unique in the UK landscape. Channel 4’s film arm, Film4, is one of the most vibrant and important sources of film investment, developing the likes of Slumdog Millionaire, Room and Carol. A recent PR snafu, however, saw a government official inadvertently snapped going into Downing Street holding a confidential report that appeared to outline different options for selling off the channel.