When BBC chairman Richard Sharp described the potential privatisation of UK broadcaster Channel 4 as a “little, local issue” at this week’s RTS Cambridge Convention, it was always going to raise a few heckles.
Perhaps the former banker’s words had been “slightly misinterpreted”, as BBC chief Tim Davie put it, but regardless, the next morning C4’s CEO Alex Mahon confirmed she’d had a discussion with the former JP Morgan man over a glass of wine to find out just what he’d meant.
Former Shine CEO Mahon did not share any details of that conversation, but it could have been instructive. Predictably, the potential privatisation of the UK channel was a constant throughout the two-day event as exec after exec – from Sky’s CEO Dana Strong to ITV CEO Carolyn McCall – were asked whether they had any appetite to acquire it.
The stock answer, as ViacomCBS’s Maria Kyriacou pointed out, was that very little could be discussed until the government showed its own hand. It didn’t help that the minister holding the cards, Oliver Dowden, lost his job as Secretary Of State for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport hours before he was meant to appear at the event.
In a further Thick Of It twist, the man put up to replace Dowden in the interim and read his speech to the RTS Convention – John Whittingdale – was then also sacked the following day amidst a far-reaching cabinet reshuffle.
It all left the future of C4 as unclear as ever. Yet, while the broadcaster’s place in the UK ecosystem is of course important, the ramifications of the recent global market changes – not least the launch of numerous US-based DTC streamers – are likely to have a greater impact on the UK’s production community.
That’s not to say the reverberations from the launches of Disney+, HBO Max, Apple TV+, Paramount+, Peacock and others since the last RTS Cambridge Convention in 2019 were not explored at the event’s 2021 edition.
For all delegates, the implications of these global streamers on the UK sector is becoming increasingly clear and the impact is already being felt. The UK industry is playing on the global stage and new rules are being written that are directly affecting how the sector operates.
For one, these new entrants – joining incumbents such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video – are creating surging demand for programming and they have deep pockets to pay for it. The result is rapidly rising production costs to the tune of 10% a year, a point that the ever-eloquent and to-the-point Jane Turton outlined, with the All3Media CEO admitting that inflationary pressures were creating “intense pressure” on producers.
But there is also huge opportunity for producers and IP owners – even broadcasters – to grow their ambitions and take on the incoming US streamers at their own game. British content, delegates were told on numerous occasions, is a global bestseller.
Project Kangaroo – the ill-fated attempt by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 to launch a global streamer that could have potentially rivalled Netflix – that came up several times in conversation on stage, despite its demise being halted by the UK’s Competition Commission more than a decade ago.
Davie admitted “regret” over the project’s curtailment but more importantly added that, in his view at least, the game had not yet been lost to the streaming behemoths, providing plenty of fodder for those who think that the Kangaroo could yet rise again.
He said that the BBC, including its commercial arm BBC Studios (BBCS), is facing some “really big choices” over the potential of a global streamer, a tacit admission that follows previous remarks around the BBC making more of a DTC play than the BritBox and BBC Select services launched to date.
The former BBCS chief went as far as to question whether there was the “ambition to flip” £500m ($690m) content sales into a streaming service, adding that “going cold turkey on the Studios business – and what that means – is quite a balanced decision.”
For UK viewers, such comments might seem to have little relevance. But the repercussions on the UK production business and its place on the world stage would be huge. Just how a global BBC-powered streamer would look remains to be seen, and indeed, perhaps it could just be a supercharged version of BritBox.
It would not be a global version of iPlayer, as David pointed out, because there would be numerous obstacles from a rights perspective. But to even mention going “cold turkey” on content sales in a US Studio type of approach highlights the ambition to reestablish the public broadcaster’s future on the rapidly changing global – streaming-focused – landscape.
While C4’s potential privatisation is by no means a “little, local issue”, it is worth reflecting on the context around which it is being discussed.