Andrew Spicer channel 4 03

Screen Industries Category

Investigating the Impact of Channel 4’s Move to Bristol: Part 2

by Andrew Spicer

Privatisation and Levelling Up

I mentioned at the end of Blog post#1 that Channel 4’s reinvention as a regionally-based broadcaster has been undermined by the government’s attempt to force through a sale by which this public service broadcaster would be privatised. On Monday 4 April, in the evening, the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, tweeted that it was the government’s intention to proceed with privatisation. Channel 4, in announcing the decision on its website, commented: ‘it is disappointing that today’s announcement has been made without formally recognising the significant public interest concerns which have been raised’.

Privatisation commands few supporters outside the Conservative Party and there is even significant opposition within the Party. There is a widespread feeling that this is, as a former Channel 4 CEO David Abraham put it in 2016, ‘a solution looking for a problem’. Many fear that the virtues that Channel 4 has demonstrated over 40 years – its commitment to diversity, plurality of voices, experimentation and minority programming – will be severely eroded if it was privatised. It is also profoundly worrying that the broadcaster is coming under attack from a government that seems determined to implement the, reasonably consistent, Conservative mantra that television is a commercial operation rather than a public good. (The irony being that Channel 4 was inaugurated during a Tory administration). This is also evident in the freezing of the BBC’s licence fee revenues and in the intended review of a mandated fee. While there may well be other ways of funding both the BBC and Channel 4, what I would contend is central is that they remain not-for-profit organisations. That is to say ones that operate to a cultural logic whereby innovation and diversity remain foregrounded and where choice of programming is determined by civic values – an informed citizenship – rather than some form of audience measurement or ratings, or commercial interests such as showing a profit or paying shareholders a substantial dividend. PSBs should operate on the principle of free access rather than be behind a pay wall, as is the case with Sky or the SVODs such as Netflix. The argument that Channel 4 (or the BBC) would be ‘liberated’ by privatisation, their entrepreneurial energies given free rein is, I think, bogus nonsense. It’s worth mentioning that Channel 4 costs the tax payer nothing, which seemed to come as a surprise to Dorries when she was questioned by a Commons committee.. So even the ostrich-like ‘why should I pay a licence fee for something I don’t watch’ (the BBC), can’t be invoked.

Channel 4 remains in good financial health despite the pandemic and is making significant moves to increase its online offering and lessen its dependency on advertising revenue. While there are long-term challenges – competition from streaming services, fragmenting audiences, declining advertising revenue – these would exist were the broadcaster privately owned, and it would also have to generate revenue for shareholders.[i] Consequently, the move has been seen as an ideologically-driven attack on public service broadcasting and perhaps an attempt to silence a critical voice.

The focus of this project is on regional broadcasting and one of the arguments against privatisation has been that it is highly likely that any prospective buyer would want Channel 4’s operations ‘streamlined’ - i.e. returned to London. That would make the company cheaper to run. It would, of course, reverse everything that the move out of London was trying to achieve: to lessen London’s historical dominance; to increase diversity and the plurality of voices on UK television; to help augment regional centres of production; to embed itself in local and regional cultures, thereby encouraging and nurturing talent in those areas and helping to forge sustainable media careers that do not necessitate moving to London. Thus there is a significant concern that a privately-owned Channel 4 would roll back on its commitments to the nations and regions and revert to being a London-based company in the interests of ‘efficiency’.[ii]

The present government made much of its ‘levelling up’ agenda at the last election. According to the government’s website, levelling up means:

  • Boosting productivity, pay, jobs and living standards by growing the private sector, especially in those places where they are lagging
  • Spreading opportunities and improving public services, especially in those places where they are weakest
  • Restoring a sense of community, local pride and belonging, especially in those places where they have been lost
  • Empowering local leaders and communities, especially in those places lacking local agency[iii]

The irony, of course, is that Channel 4’s move out of London would seem to fulfil this agenda, or at least parts of it, and to provide a very tangible instance of the levelling up agenda in practice. (There has been widespread critique of the policy because the government is not releasing substantial amounts of new money and therefore how this impeccable rhetoric will be implemented is not clear).

How Channel 4’s Creative Hub in Bristol Operates

Channel 4’s Creative Hub in Bristol houses commissioners in Daytime (Kate Thomas), Drama (Gwawr Marthan Lloyd), Factual and Popular Factual (Daniel Fromm) and part of the broadcaster’s national Creative Diversity team (Izzy Francke) together with a complement of ten full-time staff that will rise to twenty in 2022. It is headed by Sacha Mirzoeff, an experienced ex-BBC, award-winning documentarist and former head of an indie, Marble Films, who is well-known in Bristol having worked in the city for twenty years. Mirzoeff sees strong synergies ‘a “natural match”’ between Bristol and Channel 4 as mirror images: ‘Innovation and originality have always been our traits, just as they have been with Channel 4. We both have a long history of being questioning, subversive and at times cage-rattling. Bristol provides the perfect countercultural ecosystem for a channel with the core value of championing the underrepresented and daring to go where others fear to tread … [it’s] a strong and natural home for us.’[iv]

In contradistinction to the BBC’s model of regional production – a combination of various ‘centres of excellence’ and locating five departments in MediaCity Salford, Greater Manchester – Channel 4’s three sites form an interlacing network in which commissioners at all sites are free to work with indies anywhere in the UK, with commissioning decisions based predominantly on merit rather than geography. Therefore, although the regional commissioning teams do have a strong regional focus and aim to build on existing strengths and embed themselves in the local ecologies, not all Channel 4 shows made by Bristol independent production companies (‘indies’) will necessarily be commissioned from Bristol.

Channel 4’s three sites form an interlacing network in which commissioners at all sites are free to work with indies anywhere in the UK, with commissioning decisions based predominantly on merit rather than geography.

When I interviewed Mirzoeff, he argued that his particular focus is to cultivate Bristol’s countercultural diversity through Channel 4’s Emerging Indie fund, which is specifically targeted at small indies working in any genre in the nations and regions, and which is designed to help fast track their development through funding, mentoring and commercial advice. Four Bristol companies have so far benefitted: Indefinite Films, Drummer TV, Blak Wave Productions and Proper Job Films. Channel 4 also targets two other funds at regional producers. The Indie Growth Fund invests in selected companies in return for a minority equity stake, offering business advice and commercial expertise. Film Mile Films, a new Bristol factual company set-up by Channel 4’s former Head of Documentaries, Nick Mirsky, was the first Bristol indie to access this fund, which has also been refocused to prioritise the nations and regions. The Accelerator Fund, launched in July 2020, is specifically targeted at Black-owned companies to speed their development. Channel 4 chooses the indies it works with on the basis of the quality of its ideas but also its commitment to using a broad range of personnel, which is facilitated and monitored by the Creative Diversity team. In 2020, Chanel 4 launched its training and support arm, 4Skills, to work with the Bristol City Council and other agencies to address the widespread skills shortage the current production boom (money pouring in from the streaming platforms such as Netflix) has created. Although 4Skills is part of a broader outreach programme that has a specific focus on entry-level schemes and internships, the scheme aims to target appropriate support for personnel at different levels within the industry and at different stages of their careers.

Although it is early days, particularly because of the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Channel 4 has made an initial assessment of its regional presence.[v] The broadcaster has already commissioned a number of Bristol-based programmes that implement its commitment to diversity, inclusivity, under-represented groups and new voices. For example, Mirzoeff has commissioned several projects by producers of colour, including Blak Wave’s The Shadow of Slavery for Channel 4’s Take Your Knee Off My Neck series exploring British filmmakers’ response to George Floyd’s killing in May 2020. In addition, Mirzoeff is keen to attract companies such as Twenty Twenty, producer of the hugely successful First Dates reality format (now in its sixteenth series), to relocate to Bristol. As he explained in interview, ‘that’s as important to us as the actual programmes, that we’re changing the workforce on the ground here … bringing in a wider range of voices from different communities’. Furthermore, Bristol is trying to recover its position as a centre for drama and having a drama commissioner as part of Channel 4’s Bristol team will encourage that growth. Finally, Channel 4 also conceives its Bristol location as providing the locus for working with indies throughout the South West and in Wales, where it is actively working with Creative Wales to help get ideas into production.

In the next blog I will report on the four Bristol companies which have worked with Channel 4 since it set up its Bristol hub – Indefinite Films, Drummer TV, Blak Wave Productions and Proper Job Films – based on with interviews with their CEOs.

[i] For discussion see John Mair, Fiona Chesterton and Neil Fowler (eds), What Price Channel 4 Now? London: Abramis, 2021.

[ii], accessed 04 October 2021.

[iii], accessed 24 February 2022. A White Paper has been published: this is the link to the Executive Summary:

[iv], nd, npn, accessed, 13 September 2021.

[v] For People Like Us and People Like You, Channel 4, Autumn 2020.