Media Forum: Should Channel 4 link up with the BBC?

Channel 4 is reportedly keen on forming a strategic alliance with the BBC. Is this a good idea, Alasdair Reid asks. Before the start of this year's Big Brother Channel 4 was regarded by many as a rather classy organisation, the closest thing, in fact, that you could get to the BBC while still being involved in the dirty world of advertising. And there are those who believe Channel 4 is a vision of what BBC terrestrial television could become once the corporation's ambitions have been scaled back.

It is a vision of a broadcaster that is modern and sophisticated but avoids being elitist and obscure. Arty without being self-indulgent. Intelligent without being intimidating. Commercially astute without being trashy.

OK, so Channel 4 has embraced trash TV in a big way with this year's Big Brother but its position is by no means irredeemable. Andy Duncan, the new chief executive, will surely steer it back to a more viable long-term position - starting with a proposal to form closer contacts with his former employer, the BBC. Last week, in what must be seen as a major "kite-flying" exercise, Duncan told staff he regarded collaboration with the BBC as a potential way of ensuring Channel 4's future in a fragmented, multichannel world.

There are no detailed proposals on the table as yet but, if you use a bit of imagination, you can see plenty of scope for co-operation. Co-production on the programming side, for instance. International sales of existing content, the development of interactive functionality or joint marketing initiatives related to, say, activity on the BBC-controlled digital platform, Freeview. Or even, if legislation could be tweaked, more substantial joint ventures.

Is Channel 4 thinking along the right lines? Or should it be concentrating its efforts on increasing its leverage in the commercial airtime market by, for instance, forging closer links with five on the sales side?

Tom George, the managing director of Mediaedge:cia, says it would be a mistake to imagine the public service notion and the commercial sides are mutually exclusive. He says: "It's hard to comment any further than that, because there isn't much to go on in terms of concrete details, but I don't think seeking an alliance with the BBC would necessarily mean Channel 4's commercial remit would have to be diluted. If it involved things such as programming, it could strengthen Channel 4 commercially. Advertisers and agencies would certainly welcome it if it means stronger programming and bigger audiences."

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, suspects there is more than a little posturing going on here. "An alliance could be interesting at the margins but I don't believe it could include anything of substance," he states. "If you look at the programming co-production deals that some UK broadcasters have with non-UK media companies, the idea is to defray the costs of high-quality content. In a Channel 4 deal with Discovery, say, Channel 4 gets the first run and Discovery subsequently runs the programme in the multichannel space. But the possibilities for that sort of arrangement are more limited when you are talking about two terrestrial broadcasters."

Andy Roberts, the executive buying director of Starcom Motive, is not so sure. He argues it is to Channel 4's credit that it has been as stable as it has over the long term. "It has been very good at evolving its schedule," he says. "But should Channel 4 be looking for ways to improve the strength and depth of its programming? Absolutely.

"The thing about Andy Duncan is he knows more than most about the good bits of the BBC. In the broadest sense, this would have to be seen as a credible strategy, especially if we were to speculate that we are about to witness the BBC reining back from an overtly commercial approach."

Paul Longhurst, the managing director of The Allmond Partnership, believes now is an interesting time for Channel 4 and the BBC because both are reassessing their remits. He concludes: "I think they sit as comfortably together as they have ever done. And, yes, you can speculate about cross-promotion and sharing of digital expertise but really that's superficial stuff.

"If you are going to seek an alliance, why would you want to fall short of more meaningful stuff - and all sorts of economies of scale could be gained by bringing certain parts of the organisations together. From that point of view, it would make better sense for Channel 4 to be with the BBC than link up with a commercial rival. The thing about Andy Duncan is that he's not just got the ideas, he also has the connections at the BBC to be able to explore them."

- "Channel 4 has been a tremendous success standing on its own feet in the commercial market since gaining (commercial) independence in 1993. If this further strengthened its position, it would have to be welcomed by agencies and advertisers." - Tom George managing director, Mediaedge:cia

- "The interesting thing is that, as far as I understand it, Ofcom has identified Channel 4 as a keystone broadcaster responsible for providing complementary services. It would be interesting to see how an alliance with the BBC would fit with that." - Bob Wootton director of media and advertising, ISBA

- "An alliance with Channel 4 will be in the BBC's long-term interests just as much as it might be in Channel 4's. More than anything, however, this is an incredibly positive sign that Channel 4 is continuing to think laterally." - Andy Roberts executive buying director, Starcom Motive

- "I believe an alliance could really advance the cause of public service broadcasting in this country. That has to be good news from an advertising point of view, because it will mean the BBC competes less aggressively with other parts of the commercial sector." - Paul Longhurst managing director, Allmond Partnership.

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