Channel 4’s successful decade-long mission to make the Paralympics a fixture on prime-time TV could be cast aside by a new owner if the government sells the state-owned broadcaster to the highest bidder, according to a former chairman and chief executive.
Channel 4 plans to broadcast a record 1,300 hours of coverage of the Tokyo Games, almost three times the amount the BBC managed with its Olympic coverage, cementing its place as the world’s leading Paralympic broadcaster.
However, this year’s record commitment, which includes the unprecedented move of tearing up Channel 4’s regular schedule to air 17.5 hours of the Paralympics each day, could well mark a coverage high point as the broadcaster faces privatisation.
The channel’s ability to offer such vast coverage, which includes transforming the More4 channel into the “home of team sports” and offering 14 live streams on a dedicated Paralympic website, is because it doesn’t need to make a profit from the Olympics.
Channel 4 was established by Margaret Thatcher’s government in 1982 as an editorially independent broadcaster to provide a culturally challenging alternative to BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. It is publicly owned but commercially funded, about 90% of income is derived from TV advertising, and as such it is not required to turn a profit or pay dividends to shareholders.
“The way that Channel 4 was set up gives it the ability to do things unlikely to be achieved by any other broadcaster,” said Lord Burns, who chaired Channel 4 at the time the broadcaster swooped to poach the Paralympic TV rights from the BBC. “The Paralympics was made for a TV station like Channel 4, with people who can take risks, people whose remit requires something that is different.”
If Channel 4 is sold following the current government consultation, which is being run by the culture secretary, John Whittingdale, who also oversaw the last privatisation attempt five years ago, a new commercial owner is unlikely to continue to fund unprofitable programming at such scale.
In 2012 Channel 4 made a £30m loss, followed by a £15m deficit in 2016, both of which were attributed to costs associated with broadcasting the London and Rio Olympics.
“The government expects Channel 4 to keep investing in unprofitable remit-delivering initiatives like the Paralympics – and working with the hundreds of independent production companies – but hopes that these can all be delivered for another 40 years by a profit-maximising entity that either is, or can be, foreign-owned and controlled,” said David Abraham, who was chief executive of Channel 4 from 2010 to 2017. “If indeed there are any sums, they definitely don’t add up.”
Potential suitors for Channel 4 include domestic rival ITV and US giant Discovery, which owns a mix of pay-TV and free channels including Eurosport and Quest, which was identified as the most likely buyer in a report published at the time of the last privatisation push in 2016.
Five years ago Discovery paid €1.3bn (£1.1bn) for the pan-European rights to the Olympics until Paris 2024, a move designed to drive its pay-TV subscriber base. A subsequent sub-licensing deal with the BBC resulted in the corporation’s coverage of Tokyo – and next Paris – being cut from more than 3,000 hours to just 500 hours.
Discovery aired almost 3,500 hours of coverage in the UK but viewers needed a subscription to watch everything, which about two-thirds of homes do not have.
The loss of free-to-air coverage resulted in viewer complaints to the BBC. And two former BBC chairmen, Lord Grade and Sir Michael Lyons, as well as the corporation’s former director of sport, Roger Mosey, have said the TV rights to the Olympics should be better protected to make sure coverage of events of national importance aren’t shorn from free-to-air broadcasters.
“I think it is unlikely another broadcaster would do the Paralympics on the scale of Channel 4,” Burns said. “Certainly not with the same determination and investment. It is a commercially riskier activity.” The Guardian