In unprompted comments at a virtual Conservative Party Conference event on Tuesday, Whittingdale revealed that ministers are reviewing Channel 4’s future as it comes under intense pressure from U.S. streamers.
He questioned whether the UK broadcaster’s advertising model is sustainable in the age of Netflix and raised doubts about whether it needs to remain in public hands. Here’s his full quote:
“There is a very important debate to be had about Channel 4 because, unlike the BBC, Channel 4 survives without any taxpayer funding as an advertising-funded model. With the advent of the streamers and other competing services, that model is under increasing strain and I’m not sure it is sustainable into the future.
“So we do need to think about Channel 4 and whether or not there is a need for a second publically-owned public service broadcaster or what function it should fulfill. That’s something we’re giving a lot of thought to.”
Whittingdale has history when it comes to attempting to sell Channel 4, which has been government-owned since its inception in 1982 and plays a unique role in the British broadcasting ecology by funneling its revenue into the independent production sector.
He put privatization on the agenda when he was culture secretary four years ago and Channel 4 mounted a spirited rebuttal, saying it was a “solution in search of a problem” and could chip away at its public purposes. An 18-month government review ultimately culminated in Channel 4 being asked to move out of London.
In April, Deadline reported on industry concerns about Channel 4 being vulnerable to a sale after it was ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic. One well-placed person said the privatization of Channel 4 represents “unfinished business” for Whittingdale. “Whittingdale can now, under the cover being concerned about Channel 4’s stability, entertain alliances which were probably not appropriate,” the source said.
Since April, Channel 4 has restored a measure of stability as advertising revenue has returned. CEO Alex Mahon said last week that the “market is way better than the worst-case we planned for.” She added that it was essential for Channel 4 to reverse £150M ($194M) cuts to is content budget to compete with the likes of Netflix.
Deadline has asked Channel 4 if it has a response to Whittingdale’s comments.