Profit is why parts of Britain became creative wildernesses, says Channel 4 boss

A privately-owned Channel 4 will stick to licence requirements but will not “embrace its spirit,” its chief content officer has said.

Plans for the sale were set out in a White Paper on Thursday, which argues “the right owner will provide more investment and support Channel 4’s role in delivering public good”.

However, Ian Katz, chief content officer at Channel 4, claimed that the broadcaster would “not be incentivised” to make the commitments it currently does under public ownership and will mark the opposite of levelling up.

Ian Katz
Ian Katz, chief content officer at Channel 4 (House of Commons/PA)

Speaking at the Creative Cities Convention in Birmingham on Thursday, he said: “They would be more focused on their own shareholders than delivering value to the British people, would not be opening offices in places like Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol and would not be spending a pound more on independent producers than they had to.

“In reality, we know a profit driven Channel 4 would be pushed inexorably toward same-old proven formats, same old subjects, same old talent, same old producers.”

In his speech, Mr Katz suggested that the remit for a privately-owned Channel 4 to take creative risks, champion new talent and represent unheard voices would be “different.”

He said: “On Sunday, three Channel 4 shows were recognised with prizes, six of them, at the Bafta craft awards.

“Russell T Davies’s Aids era masterpiece It’s A Sin; We Are Lady Parts, a riotous comedy about an all-female Muslim punk band created by first time writer Nida Manzoor; and Grenfell: The Untold Story, an account of the disaster through the eyes of the residents.

“I don’t believe a profit driven channel would have commissioned any of those shows.”

The white paper said that under private ownership, Channel 4 would be required to spend 25% of its budget with independent producers.

Mr Katz said: “Since we typically spend around £400 million with UK producers, that means a privately owned Channel 4 could spend at least £300 million less in the independent sector.

“Believe me, that new owner would have a whole roomful of accountants and lawyers trying to work out how to keep just within the letter of that law, not to embrace its spirit as we do now.”

Mr Katz added that currently 66% of Channel 4’s originated TV hours were commissioned from the nations and regions, almost double the 35% licence requirement.

Channel 4
The Channel 4 building in London (Ian West/PA)

“Would a new, private owner that buys Channel 4 looking for ‘synergies’ and ‘deduplication’ commission 66% – at greater cost to their shareholders – or would they commission 35% and not a minute more?

“A Channel 4 which purely delivered its existing licence requirements would have spent £86 million less on out of London productions last year.

“The drive to profit is the reason why parts of Britain became creative wildernesses in the 90s and 00s when commercial TV abandoned local production in favour of centralisation.

“It’s not the fault of any particular company, it’s just what happens when profit is the north star of your decision-making.”

Mr Katz concluded that he hoped Channel 4 would continue to play a “central part” in the “great decentralisation” of the TV industry and a “central part in our national life”.