Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign, editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Government's BBC and C4 overtures show it's still all to play for in TV

Tensions are running high among the UK's public-service broadcasters as our Conservative government starts to show its teeth.

The BBC appeared to have been cornered this week, after agreeing to take over the £650 million annual cost of providing free TV licences for the over-75s in return for at least five more years of security.

The back-room deal deftly saved the chancellor, George Osborne, from the unseemly business of being the one to stop the free TV perk enjoyed by our ageing population. It was an offer the Beeb could hardly refuse – ring-fencing the licence fee was always its main concern.  

Meanwhile, over at Channel 4, the future of its public-service remit continues to be a matter of debate. Baroness Neville-Rolfe, the parliamentary undersecretary of the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, recently stated that there are "no plans currently" to privatise Channel 4.

Hardly the ringing endorsement David Abraham’s team were hoping for. When presenting the annual report last month, Abraham warned that privatisation would create a "different Channel 4" in which money would be siphoned away from its content budget in favour of the sort of "25 per cent [profit] margins" chased by ITV. "I don’t think you could have a Channel 4 lite," he pointed out. "You either have full Channel 4 or you have Channel 5."

'Critics point to the stagnation of C4’s main channel as proof that it needs a swift kick up the backside'

I have to agree it would be difficult for the broadcaster to live up to its "born risky" brief if the bottom line became top of mind. Of course, many will argue that such a shake-up is exactly what Channel 4 needs.

Critics point to the stagnation of Channel 4’s main channel as proof that it needs a swift kick up the backside that true market forces would be sure to provide. The channel has seen its share of audience tumble from 7.5 per cent in 2008 to just 4.8 per cent last year.

It will come down to how much value is placed on Channel 4’s remit and the role it has in the wider ecosystem. Sure, there are easier ways to make money from telly. Balancing its public-service programming obligations – around children, for example – has only become harder in a fragmenting landscape.

So Channel 4 must be delighted with Ofcom’s suggestion last week that it could be time to allow its other channels, such as E4 and More4, to subsume some of those obligations. The move would provide increasing flexibility in a sea of change.

Ofcom went on to indicate that these channels could then benefit from greater prominence of EPG slots. While far from a done deal, such recommendations are a timely reminder that all cards remain on the table.