MEDIA: Perspective - C4's in real danger of undermining its privileged position

It always used to strike me as odd that Channel 4's sales team would whisk industry top dogs (including, on occasion, rival broadcasters) away on trips like the one to the US Superbowl. Wasn't this in some sense public money being used to show a few mates a good time?

It always used to strike me as odd that Channel 4's sales team would whisk industry top dogs (including, on occasion, rival broadcasters) away on trips like the one to the US Superbowl. Wasn't this in some sense public money being used to show a few mates a good time?

It's a small but clear example of how easy it is to point an accusing finger at a channel that now uncomfortably straddles the public service/commercial divide. Andy Barnes, Channel 4's sales director, would probably argue that the sums involved in any corporate entertainment are outweighed by the commercial benefits of good relations with advertising industry chiefs. He would probably be right, too, but that doesn't stop such gestures itching away at Channel 4's public service credentials, credentials which the channel seems lately to have been rather cavalier with.

Channel 4 has proved itself an incredibly successful commercial venture while at the same time enjoying some of the privileges of a public service broadcaster: it does not have to pay a licence fee in return for which advantage it has a remit to fund original UK programming.

It's a formula which has fuelled Channel 4's expansion into the ruthlessly commercial broadcasting arena, first with FilmFour and now with E4. The new channels have helped drive up the price of prized imports such as Friends, are now competing for viewers and ad revenue in digital homes and enjoy cross-promotion at key junctures on Channel 4 itself while depriving the rest of us of the first glimpse of new series such as Ally McBeal.

Not surprisingly, rival broadcasters have sharpened their teeth for a fight over the hybrid that Channel 4 has become.

This week's unveiling of a new division, 4 Ventures, to house all commercial activities outside the core terrestrial channel, such as FilmFour, E4 and online ventures, is a belated acknowledgement of the issue. According to Channel 4's chief, Michael Jackson, the split will preserve the main channel 'as a strong public service foundation on which all other businesses are built'.

But the new unit does not appear to go far enough. What must be clear, if Channel 4 is to maintain public service credentials, is that the revenue generated from its privileged terrestrial status is channelled back into the core service. Last year, David Elstein famously pointed out a pounds 250 million shortfall between Channel 4's revenue and the money it put back into programming.

Yes, there is an argument that as media continues to fragment, Channel 4 could come to rely on its fully fledged commercial assets to support the core channel. But for now, the money seems to be moving in the opposite direction with little tangible benefit for the Channel 4 viewer.

4 Ventures will have to work hard to demonstrate that it's a self-sustaining operation if it is to protect Channel 4 from further accusations of abuse.



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