U.K. Government Sets Out Rules for ‘Britishness’ and Clashes With Channel 4 on Privatization

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On a tumultuous day at the Royal Television Society convention at Cambridge, Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon and the U.K. government clashed over the proposed privatization of the channel, while the government also set out rules for the enhanced “Britishness” of programming.

Moments before Mahon took the stage, Oliver Dowden who was due to speak immediately after, was replaced as Culture Secretary by Nadine Dorries, in what was an equally eventful day at No. 10 Downing Street in London, with a massive cabinet reshuffle in progress. John Whittingdale, Minister for Media and Data, spoke instead of Dowden, appearing by video conferencing as a last-minute substitute.

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On Thursday, Whittingdale was removed from his ministerial position, with no replacement announced.

On Wednesday, Whittingdale read out the speech prepared for Dowden and revealed new plans to legislate to ensure public service broadcasting content is always carried and discoverable to U.K. audiences on connected devices and major online platforms — including smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks. There will be a consultation on this process in the fall and it will be discussed in parliament next year.

Whittingdale also said programming by British broadcasters will be required to be “distinctively British” going forward.

The U.K. PSBs currently have requirements in their remits to broadcast “original” content, which was previously considered sufficient to ensure their programming had a characteristically British dimension.

“However, the globalization of broadcasting means that more of the content we watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the U.K., with an international cast, communicating in U.S. English,” said a statement from the U.K. Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). “This risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for U.K. audiences, as well as minimizing its proven soft power abroad.”

In such a scenario, U.K. lawmakers are considering adding to the definition of “original productions” and making the focus of the PSB system “more explicit on content that contributes to British culture and allows U.K. audiences to see their own way of life and representations of themselves reflected on TV,” the DCMS statement added.

“Public service broadcasters have a unique role and I want them to continue producing shows that allow people in every corner of the U.K. to see their lives reflected on screen, and that showcase the things we are most proud of to the rest of the world,” Whittingdale said. “To make programs that are iconic, not generic.”

On the Channel 4 matter, the U.K. government line coming into the convention was that “standing still” would be an “act of self-harm” for Channel 4. Mahon refuted that straight off the bat, saying, “Definitely no, I don’t want to stand still, none of us do. In fact, I’d argue that we’re moving faster than plenty of other broadcasters in the world, we’ve got a massive transition to digital. So I think those are shared objectives.”

Addressing the question of whether Channel 4 is better placed to deliver its public service remit in public or private ownership, Mahon said, “There is no data, and there’s no evidence as yet that Channel 4 would be more able to sustain that mission and that remit and its delivery of social impact in support of indies and the credit community in 10 years’ time if it was in private hands.”

In response, Whittingdale said that Channel 4 is dependent on “a single source of revenue, which is advertising” and as competition for eyeballs intensified, there’d be pressure on advertising revenues. Whittingdale added that Channel 4 did not have recourse to borrowing and provided the example of Channel 5, which is backed by deep-pocketed ViacomCBS.

“We are concerned that pressure on Channel 4 is going to steadily increase,” Whittingdale said. “We want to examine what needs to be done to sustain Channel 4 for the long term. It is best to do that now, rather than wait for the crisis to happen.”

Another point Mahon made on Wednesday against privatization was that diverse programming that was potentially financially unviable would no longer be possible, citing the example of the U.S. Open final featuring Emma Raducanu as well as AIDS-themed “It’s a Sin,” which she said was turned down by every other broadcaster, and the channel’s recent “Black to Front” day.

Whittingdale said that part of Channel 4’s appeal was its “risky” programming “appealing to minority audiences.”

“I don’t believe that anybody is going to want to acquire Channel 4, and then throw away the thing which is most successful at winning audiences,” Whittingdale said.

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