Tim Davie, director general of the BBC, has backed the importance of Channel 4’s role in supporting the independent production community, describing  “the way channel 4 supports the independent community” as one of its “precious” attributes.

“The BBC’s positions is very clear,” he said. “We don’t have a position on the ownership structure of C4. What we do care about is the wonders of the PSB ecology, it’s a wonderful thing, we play with that at our peril.”

Speaking on day two of the RTS Cambridge Convention, the BBC director general was responding to this comment made yesterday by BBC chairman Richard Sharp during his keynote: “Privatisation is a little local issue and C4 will fit into the strategy of one of the big players.” Davie qualified this comment, saying that it was meant in the context of the industry needing to work together.

The question mark hanging over Channel 4 has been the biggest talking point at the RTS Convention. Consultation on the ownership of the channel closed earlier this week, on Tuesday 14th September.

Alex Mahon, CEO of C4, speaking to Convention delegates yesterday, warned of the potential critical impact on the independent production community, if privatisation is the chosen route. She referred to the role that the broadcaster plays in “the nurturing of small and medium independent production companies that bring new voices into the industry.” Mahon concluded: “You can make decisions, but those are the consequences for making that decision.”

Mahon’s session was followed by a keynote with the Secretary of State setting out the commercial imperative for addressing Channel 4 ownership. With yesterday’s news that Oliver Dowden was being replaced by Nadine Dorries as UK Culture Secretary, Dowden’s speech to the Royal Television Society Convention was instead delivered by John Whittingdale, Media minister.

The speech argued that new private investment would allow the channel to better keep up with the SVODs such as Netflix and Amazon. “Too many people are fixated on Channel 4’s current situation. We are much more concerned with its long-term future. And we believe that if Channel 4 wants to grow then at some point soon it will need cash. Without it, Channel 4 won’t have the money to invest in technology and programming, and it won’t be able to compete with the streaming giants.”

During the RTS session, Whittingdale said: “Channel 4 is not able to borrow and not able to call up on the resources of an owner in the way that Channel 5 can.”

Describing Channel 4 as “one of this country’s greatest assets” the Secretary of State’s speech pointed to Channel 4’s recent deal struck with Amazon for joint rights to the U.S. Open tennis final as the type of deal he would like to see more of going forward. In her keynote, however, Mahon claimed that this deal would not have happened if there had been a commercial drive. Interestingly, earlier in the day ITV CEO Carolyn McCall told delegates that ITV had capped its bid for the match and therefore lost out.

The speech, delivered by Whittingdale, made clear that Channel 4’s public service remit will remain, whatever the decision. “I’d imagine those to include: a continued commitment to independent news and current affairs, to commissioning programming from the independent production sector, and that Channel 4 should continue to be representative of the entire nation.”

Pippa Considine

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