UK Government Minister in Channel 4 Matchmaking Mode

26 January 2009

LONDON: Andy Burnham (pictured), Secretary of State for parliament's most risible hybrid, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, was last week in St George mode, apparently seeing himself in the role of saviour of Channel 4, the nation's ailing second-string public service broadcaster.

He declared himself in favour of a deal with BBC Worldwide, as opposed to a merger with Five or "top-slicing" part of the BBC's licence fee.

Addressing the Oxford Media Convention, Burnham gave his village hall version of Shakespeare's Agincourt speech: "Let me be clear: the Channel 4 brand is here to stay," he declaimed.

The "clearest path forward" was to use the broadcaster as a "reservoir" to provide plurality of public service content beyond the BBC.

As is usual with politicians, Burnham spouted much but revealed little. "The role of the BBC must be protected but ... a fourth Reithian principle, one of partnership, should be put into its DNA.

"Public service content would be at its heart but it must be allowed to be innovative and flexible with partnerships," he said, adding that he favoured a survival package that investigated partnerships with public bodies first.

C4's birth back in November 1982 was attended by a raft of Bad Fairies in the guise of UK politicos who conferred on the unfortunate infant the curse of an unachievable dual role: that of a public service broadcaster funded entirely by commercial ad revenues.

But it was not until British TV's golden age started to tarnish in the late-90s with the advent of digital TV and its concomitant infestation of re-run channels, that traditional commercial TV's licence to print money was revoked by a killer combination of new technology and market forces.

Like dinosaurs, this Darwinian situation left ITV1 and C4 stranded by evolution, the former struggling ever harder by the day amid falling audiences and a bottom-trawling share price; while the latter is on course for losses of up to £150 million ($218.56m; €165.8m) annually by 2012.

Burnham ended his Agincourt spiel in obfuscationist parliamentary mode.

"PSB should never be box-ticking, it should always be challenging," he said. "Which leads me to ask if it has been challenging enough [recently]? Is it easier to retreat into a comfort zone?"

"Where," he asked rhetorically, "was coverage of women's and girls' sport; and was there enough content catering for minority communities, older audiences, Shakespeare or new primetime music shows?

Clearly the secretary of state has never had to sell advertising time based on such a premise.

Data sourced from; additional content by WARC staff