Thursday, March 13, 2008

Next on 4 - Channel 4 sets out its public service broadcasting role

Next on 4 logo

Channel 4 have been setting out their stall this morning, outlining their vision and purpose. Independent from government, yet also without shareholders, Channel 4 it brings plurality to public service broadcasting in the UK.

Twenty five years old, their vision was summarised this morning in a webcast in front of a London audience (or was it a London meeting that was webcast?):

  • To nurture new talent and original ideas - not just about a few UGC clips on the C4 website;
  • To champion alternative voices and fresh perspectives;
  • To challenge people to see the world differently - powerful, uncomfortable viewpoints, questioning assumptions;
  • To inspire change in people’s lives - stimulating learning and new behaviour, giving liberating practical advice.

Do we still need C4 to carry out this role in an age of digital media? Their answer: Yes, more than ever.

Some practical steps are being taken to move forward their agenda.

Reducing US acquisitions to spend money on UK productions.

A £50m new media digital fund called 4IP (4 Innovation for the Public) has been set up, seeded with £20m from C4 itself, and also funding from regional partners such as Invest NI. Basically, a model of experiment and partnership, with sufficient scale to make an impact, to see how emerging technologies can be more widely applied to the UK audience. Seeking to exploit digital technologies to inform and enhance public value, through partnership with sporting bodies, computer gaming etc.

Belfast will be hosting one of the 4IP hubs, which “will benefit ... from the creative, technical and marketing skills of Channel 4, using our infrastructure to achieve economies of scale”. (Whatever that means, but it sounds positive for the local creative industry!)

The presentation finished with a two-fold proposition: upping the quality of C4’s governance and accountability in return for sustained, stable funding.

Channel 4 now has a viewer’s editor. A new content subcommittee of the C4 board will review their public service remit from editorial perspective. And they’ll publish an annual statement of public value alongside their existing annual report.

Yet in return they want funding (~£100m) equivalent to the value of the terrestrial spectrum that they have been given (but is diminishing in value through the switchover to digital terrestrial viewing).

Throughout its existence, Channel 4has benefited from an implicit subsidy in the form of gifted analogue spectrum which, at its height, is estimated to have been worth 15-20% of turnover.

Channel 4 has been arguing for some time that as the analogue spectrum declines in value, a significant funding gap will emerge. The residual value of analogue spectrum will fall away completely once the digital switchover process is completed in 2012, by which time Channel 4 estimates the funding gap will have grown to around £100 million.

With C4’s twin public-purpose/commercial background, it is perhaps interesting to compare their four purposes with the public purposes adopted by the BBC as part of the charter renewal:

  • sustaining citizenship and civil society;
  • promoting education and learning;
  • stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
  • representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
  • bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;
  • in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

There's a more active emphasis on changing people and broadening horizons within Channel 4's purposes that surpasses what the BBC deliberately shies away from. Advocacy and lobbying vs information and debate?

Interestingly, only two mentions of Channel 4's digital radio plans in all the talk this morning.

Later in the year we move into digital radio and here too, it will be our mission to experiment ...

Our plans for digital radio are well publicised and are progressing.

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