Ian Katz NEW

"If the government’s proposed privatisation of Channel 4 goes ahead without careful protection of its essence...like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we may not understand the cost until it’s too late." Ian Katz, Wales Screen Summit

Category: Speech

Thank you for inviting me to speak at this inaugural Wales Screen Summit. I’ve never spoken at an actual summit before and I hope there will be late night negotiations about the final communique and one of those group pictures we can study closely to see who really hates who.   

Actually I’m quite relieved to be allowed into Wales because a few years back, in another life, I was pretty much persona non grata around here. I was editing BBC Newsnight at the time and the programme ran an item debating whether the Welsh government was devoting too many resources to promoting the Welsh language rather than improving public services. Well you can imagine how that went down. I was on holiday at the time but it didn’t stop lots of people demanding my resignation and even, if I remember rightly, calling for a Welsh boycott of the TV licence fee.   

So I’m particularly pleased, today, to be announcing the commission, in partnership with S4C, of Un Nos Ola Leaud. Most of you will know I’m sure, the wonderful Welsh language novel by Caradog Pritchard that explores themes of poverty and mental health against the backdrop of rural north Wales towards the end of World War 1. Well, we’re not just bringing it to the screen but setting it to music by the brilliant Gareth Glyn – making it, I think I can pretty confidently say, the first opera sung in Welsh to be broadcast on British TV.    

And One Moonlit Night is just the latest addition to an extraordinarily diverse and rich slate of programmes made for Channel 4 in Wales. There’s Great House Giveaway, the BAFTA winning, daytime hit from Chwarel in Cricketh.    

Then there’s Handmade: Britain’s Best Woodworker – literally a whittling whittle – filmed in the beautiful Brecon Beacons by Plimsoll and one of the breakout hits of last year.    

And coming up soon we’re really excited about Aldi Millionares, from South Shore and The Light in the Hall, a compulsive six part thriller from Triongl and Duchess Street Productions being made in collaboration with S4C.    

And today we’re announcing several more commissions out of Wales...reorders for two very promising series, The Perfect Pitch from Avanti and Geordie Hospital – which doesn’t sound very Welsh at all but is made by Curve out of Cardiff - as well as The Unique Boutique, a ground-breaking style show in which people who have not been able to find fashion to fit their unusual body shapes have gorgeous outfits created specifically for them.    

 What is really heartening about this range of titles is both the breadth of genres represented and the overall increase in our spend on production in Wales – at £17m - roughly triple what we spent eight years ago.    

 Crucially though, our support for the industry in Wales is not only through commissioning spend. We have shaped a holistic strategy designed to target the two big blockers faced by the sector – skills and capital.   

Our Production Training Scheme will this year give well over 30 people from across the UK with no experience in the industry – including six in Wales – the opportunity to get a first foot on the ladder of TV production. And a little further up the ladder, the Factual Fast Track programme, which we deliver in partnership with the BBC, S4C and Creative Wales has provided seven of Wales’s most promising producers the support and experience they need to turbocharge their careers to the next level.  

Meanwhile, our Emerging Indie Fund, which aims to support small indies to get a first commission from the channel, is working with three Welsh companies: Crash, Postcard and Hall of Mirrors – and it’s so great to be able to point to the inspiring example of Chwarel, which was one of the first recipients of our Emerging Indie Fund in 2020. 

 Now it’s hard to talk about Channel 4’s engagement with the industry in Wales without mentioning the P word. As many have already pointed out, if a new owner chose to simply meet the requirements currently set out in the broadcasting white paper, we could see a reduction of up to £320m in spend with independent producers and a reduction of £86m in out of London spend. And since at least some of the required out of London spend would be snapped up by in house production it’s likely the impact would even greater than that.    

 It’s striking too, that the white paper includes no requirements for a new owner of Channel 4 to provide training or the kind of support for smaller companies I have talked about.   

 To date much of the debate about privatisation has focused on its potential economic impact on the industry, and on the levelling up agenda, but Emyr asked me specifically to talk today about how it would be likely to impact the viewer.   

Of course we don’t know exactly what programming decisions a profit driven owner of Channel 4 would make and it’s important not to be a catastrophist. After all there is lots of wonderful, high quality television on purely commercial channels and platforms; I have spent much too much of my life recently watching the Morning Show on Apple TV, Yellowjackets and Landscapers on Sky and, OK, Love Island on ITV.   

And of course we don’t yet know what protection of the Channel 4 remit will be included in the media bill if and when it passes through both houses of parliament.  

 But based on what we have seen in the white paper, I think it’s possible to look at some of the most distinctive shows Channel 4 makes and take an educated guess about whether they would appear on a purely profit driven channel.   

Take two of the shows I mentioned earlier: One Moonlit Night and The Unique Boutique? A non English language opera and a show about fashion for disabled people. Would they survive the kind of profit margin analysis a purely commercial channel would apply to commissioning? I rather doubt it.   

Or consider the shows garlanded at the BAFTAs last month. Would Stath, a comedy about a terrible Cypriot lettings agent created by a first time writer and – then – relatively unknown performer have seen the light of day? Again, I doubt it.   

More generally what about Channel 4’s channel defining comedy output, from Derry Girls to We Are Lady Parts, last year’s improbable hit series about an all women Muslim punk band? Both Lisa McGee, creator of Derry Girls, and Nida Manzoor, who wrote We Are Lady Parts, have talked about how they do not believe their shows would have been made by a commercial channel. Take a look at ITV and Channel 5; how much original British comedy do you see on those channels? It’s not surprising the answer is “almost none” because only a tiny proportion of comedies find their way to a large enough audience to be profitable. If the business you are in is business, then comedy is not good business. Or, you might say, a privatised Channel 4 is just not funny.   

Going back to those BAFTAs, consider Mo Gilligan, who won the award for Best Comedy Entertainment Programme for his Lateish Show. Would Mo have been given his own show on a purely commercial channel? Back in 2019 when the show launched Mo had appeared only on social media and as a co-host on another, relatively niche Channel 4 program, The Big Narstie Show. As Mo put it in his BAFTA acceptance speech: “I was going to all these meetings and people would say you’re really good but we don’t really know what to do with you and they trusted me and let me be myself.”

And if you want to know what a privatised Channel 4 would mean for new talent more generally, you need only look at how the streamers and commercial PSBs behave. What is their approach to talent development? Waiting. Waiting for Channel 4 and BBC 3 to find and develop new talent and projects and then putting them on air when we have figured out which ones are any good. I can't blame them; R+D is an expensive function in any business, and why would you spend money on it if you didn't have to? If you didn't have to because that was one of the core reasons for your existence.   

Back to those BAFTAs. Consider Gogglebox, a behemoth of the TV landscape now, but once a distinctly cookey idea – watching other people watch TV? - with rather anaemic first series ratings. As Stephen Lambert, maker of Gogglebox put it: “Googlebox might have ended when it started nine years ago because it had modest ratings, but a publicly owned risk-taking Channel 4 believed in it and they stuck with it.” How many future Goggleboxes will be lost if Channel 4 replaces a commitment to innovation with a pure pursuit of profit.    

Or think about Help, Jack Thorne’s searing drama which picked up BAFTAs for remarkable performances by Jodie Comer and Cathy Tyson. How many commercial broadcasters, how many international streamers, would have greenlit a drama about the impact of Covid on a Liverpool care home? I know Jack Thorne’s answer.    

And the same answer, I’m pretty sure, would apply to many of Channel 4's most powerful dramas of the last few years: It's a Sin, Help, Ackley Bridge, Shane Meadows's Virtues, Adult Material, Lucy Kirkwood's darkly comic exploration of the porn industry. In a couple of weeks we’ll be airing Peter Kosminsky’s brilliant and eerily timely cyber-warfare drama Undeclared War which, by the way stars Simon Pegg, who like so many great British talents began their career on Channel 4. After watching the impact of commercial pressures on British broadcasters for decades Kosminsky is certain that a profit driven channel would not have made any of his Channel 4 dramas from The Government Inspector to Undeclared War.

Or consider a very different part of our output: the channel’s deep commitment to covering the Paralympics, a commitment that has transformed the profile of paralympic sport, and arguably transformed Britain’s attitudes to disability. Would a profit driven Channel 4 rip up its schedules to air over 1,300 hours of the next Paralympics at a significant loss? I don’t think anyone in the world of Paralympic sport would bet on it.  

 Which brings me to one of the most distinctive – and least commercial - areas of Channel 4’s output. Channel 4 News is admired around the world for its depth, its intelligence, its commitment to investigative journalism and to telling the stories other news outlets often neglect – often stories in faraway places.  It has had an extraordinary couple of years: found by Ofcom research to be the most trusted news source during the pandemic, unrivalled in its coverage of the climate crisis last year, this year widely praised for the comprehensiveness, humanity and intelligence of its coverage of the war in Ukraine. Over a 10 year period it has won more awards than any other British TV news outlet. There are many who would argue it is the finest TV news program in the world.  

 So what would the future for Channel 4 News look like on a privatised channel? Let’s not dwell on the Secretary of State’s observation before the DCMS select committee that Channel 4 News “didn’t do themselves any favours” since the government has repeatedly assured us that there is no element of political score-settling behind its push for privatisation. The government has also stated that Channel 4’s news provision will be protected by the licence requirements imposed on its new owner.  

But we should be clear about two things. The first is that the Secretary of State has suggested that licence requirements may only apply to a new owner of Channel 4 for a period of 10 years. 10 years is not a long time: we are currently just six years from finding out if Sky News will survive the end of Comcast’s contractual commitments to funding it.

The second, is that whatever requirements are imposed on a new owner to deliver a certain number of hours of news in a certain part of the schedule, it is almost impossible to prescribe the delivery of the sort of programme that is produced now. Could a profit driven Channel 4 make more money by dialling down on expensive foreign news coverage, scaling back on investigations, retreating from a second studio in Leeds, making fewer films, employing fewer reporters? Of course it could.    

So whether it’s a few years down the line, or in subtle and corrosive ways sooner than that, it is very likely that a privatised Channel 4 would deliver a different kind of news program to the one we air now.  

Britain’s public service broadcasting architecture is a complex and finely balanced ecosystem of plural voices. Few outside the industry – and even in it – have a firm grasp of it, and it’s hard to precisely predict the consequences of tinkering with bits of it. Of potentially muting one of those voices.   

That is why over the coming months it is vital that the government’s plans to privatise Channel 4 are rigorously scrutinised by MPs and peers on all sides. 

Parliamentarians have to fully understand the hole in British life that would be left if it is sold off, and especially if it is sold off without cast-iron protections in place for the role it plays in supporting our creative economy, in levelling up, in representing all of Britain, in driving innovation, in promoting informed, critical thinking and intelligent, open debate.   

If the government’s proposed sell-off of Channel 4 goes ahead without careful and comprehensive protection of its essence and character, little might seem different the day after the channel is sold. But little by little, a precious part of our national cultural capital could be lost. Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, we may not understand the cost until it’s too late.