The TV industry may not agree with Gerhard Zeiler’s assessment of Channel 4 and Five being “complementary broadcasters” (the cultures of the two places are radically different, as is their history), but C4 changed the day it started selling its own advertising in 1993.
From that point on, its public service remit has been in tension with the need to earn money and operate commercially. C4′s commitment to making loss-making, public service programmes such as Dispatches and Channel 4 News is therefore already being tested by its need to survive commercially. A tie-up with BBC Worldwide would not end this commercial tension but simply bring in more cash, just as the end of the ad sales arrangement with ITV did in 1998. That money went on digital channels Film4, E4 and so on. A merger with Five would also perpetuate the tension between public service output and commercial revenue. But at least the new entity would have a larger share of TV viewing and advertising. In these days of doing fewer things better it seems the most realistic option.
The public service brodcasting review which has come to a head today – like the countless others before it – has taken place in and among the TV industry with the general public still not having much of a clue about how broadcasters are owned and/or funded. Ofcom insists it has done “detailed audience research”. But look at Annex 8 of the report on public service broadcasting in which Ofcom tells us it interviewed 2,004 people in July and August last year.
When asked unprompted what the licence fee pays for, less than half of respondents mentioned any aspect of the BBC. In other words, a huge swathe of people – 56% in this survey – do not automatically link the BBC with the licence fee. Only 2% of people in Ofcom’s research correctly said the licence fee pays for all of the BBC’s services. Far more, 24%, mentioned TV channels/programming/TV technology generally in connection with the licence fee.
This gives a truer picture of the level of ignorance about how TV is funded than the results of the next question where people were prompted with a list of services that the licence fee could pay for. It’s far easier to answer a multiple choice question than an open question where you have to supply your own answers. When prompted with a list, 87% of people mentioned at least one BBC service (mostly BBC 1 and BBC 2) when asked what the licence fee pays for. Only 37% knew all of the BBC’s services are paid for by the licence fee, even when prompted with the right answer.
Against this background, it’s impossible to argue about what the public “want” from public service broadcasting. The public show what they want by using their remote controls: they watch BBC 1 and ITV 1 in their droves; they make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother “popular”; they don’t watch C4 News and Dispatches in huge numbers. That is the reality and only a certain amount of tinkering with the format of public service programming will change it. There are just too many other things to do and too many other ways of getting information.
So the public won’t care or particularly miss out if C4 and Five merge. Unless C4 suddenly stops selling advertising altogether, it must continue to behave commercially however it’s set up. The government should now decide what it believes will give the viewing public the best of all options in future: the popular and the worthy. Over to you, media secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving a speech tomorrow.