Channel 4 currently produces £200m worth of programmes in Scotland, supporting 400 jobs – but this vibrant, Glasgow-based industry now faces great uncertainty due to the UK Government’s sell-off plan

For 20 years, presenters Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer have been guiding couples to new homes on our small screens. Their reality show Location, Location, Location – and the spin-offs and overseas copies it has spawned – is a TV staple.

It is also an economic and cultural engine room for Scotland in general and the city of Glasgow in particular.

Because in television, as in house buying, the “where” – place – is vital.

The programme is Scottish. It may not always sound it, or look it, but Scottish it is. Indeed, Location, Location, Location was a sort of pathfinder for a now-vibrant Glasgow industry producing millions of pounds worth of television for Channel 4.

Since 2007, Britain’s only truly national state broadcaster has commissioned £200 million worth of TV north of the Border, supporting 400 jobs.

After a council-led campaign, the channel now also has a hub in Glasgow, with commissioners based right in the city, as it expands its reach beyond London. It is, insiders say, along with the BBC, a central pillar of a screen industry which sustains 10,000 jobs and generates over a cool half a billion a year.

Channel 4 provides what one veteran of the indie sector called the “critical mass” for his industry in Glasgow, Scotland’s TV town.

The entire business, say those who work in it, is in peril because the UK Government is considering the privatisation of Channel 4.

This weekend, some of the biggest movers in the Glasgow-based independent TV production sector and the city’s leader, Susan Aitken, wrote to British ministers including Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, urging them to keep the broadcaster in state hands. “The long-term damage to a buoyant and sustainable sector flourishing across these islands resulting from privatisation would be catastrophic,” they said.

Signatories included Jane Rogerson and Ross Harper of Red Sky Productions, Alan Clements of Two Rivers Media, and Jane Muirhead of Raise The Roof Productions.

Unique status

AT the heart of the concerns of the industry is the potential loss of the unique status of Channel 4 as what is called a “publisher broadcaster”.

The channel, the brainchild of the Margaret Thatcher government in the early 1990s, is owned by the state but acts as a kind of hothouse for cultural entrepreneurism. Using money generated from advertising, it commissions TV from independent companies which, crucially, retain the intellectual property rights.

So, if a maker gets a hit – perhaps something like Location, Location, Location, made by IWC and spun off into Australian, French, Danish and Norwegian versions – it reaps the profits and, typically, reinvests these into developing new ideas.

The big private broadcasting corporations tend to make their own programmes in-house or insist on owning the rights.

But there is another reason why Channel 4 is so specifically important for Scotland. It is obliged to commission outside London. The broadcaster, whose own management opposes privatisation, last year was on track to spend half its budget in the “nations and regions”.

Some Conservatives believe selling Channel 4 could raise as much as £1.2 billion in one-off revenues and that unshackled from state ownership, it could thrive in a way, they say, it cannot now, raising more money for programme-making.

The broadcaster, they argue, needs to be able to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon.

C4 ‘needs cash’

MEDIA Minister John Whittingdale set out this stall last year to the Royal Television Society. “If Channel 4 wants to grow then at some point soon it will need cash, he said. “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.”

Whittingdale, however, added that he wanted to keep “proper public service obligations”. This is where his views depart from those in the Scottish industry. Channel 4, insiders think, would not be worth much to the Exchequer with such obligations and would be crippling for the Glasgow trade and the Tories levelling-up agenda without it.

“While we would prefer Channel 4 to remain publicly owned, our opposition to privatisation is not ideological,” Ms Aitken and the TV executives said in their letter. “Were it genuinely possible to sell Channel 4 but retain its unique publisher broadcaster status together with its existing (perhaps enhanced) obligations to work with and commission from independent producers outside of London, and in the UK’s nations and regions, the likely damage to our creative economy could be avoided.”

But they added: “All evidence suggests though that once in private hands broadcasters prioritise shareholder returns, not broader public goals.

“It is our shared view that selling the broadcaster will damage our national creative economy and threaten the existence of independent producers – currently an international success story for all the UK. Privatisation is a short-sighted move, contrary to any genuine Levelling Up agenda, and any financial benefits to the Exchequer would be short-term, as nought in comparison to the long-term loss of tax income generated year in, year out by those independent producers and their employees, contractors, suppliers.”

The letter from Ms Aitken and the TV executives bypassed Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who recently wrongly claimed Channel 4 cost the taxpayers money but who is currently sifting through a consultation on the broadcaster’s privatisation.

Industry lobbyists are eager to “speak Tory”. They believe there are Conservatives on both sides of the Border who want to protect the channel. Ms Rogerson warned some in Westminster wanted an ITV model for Channel 4. She told The Herald on Sunday: “The only programme I know of on the ITV network that is made in Scotland is Catchphrase. I love Catchphrase but one Catchphrase does not underpin a whole industry or its jobs.”

‘Snatch defeat’

ANOTHER senior TV maker told this newspaper that Glasgow – having just secured the Channel 4 hub – was about to snatch defeat from the hands of victory, Scotland-style. The SNP local authority has seized on TV as a new boom industry, and built a substantial political and business alliance to bring the hub to the city.

Ms Aitken herself said: “The city’s compelling and successful bid for a new Channel 4 base was a huge boost to the sector. The new studio space at the Kelvin Hall put in place the other missing jigsaw piece.

“Privatising Channel 4 seriously risks unravelling that. It was important that those of us who were part of Glasgow’s G4C4 campaign in 2018 appeal directly to UK ministers to illustrate just how self-defeating and short-sighted any sale is to their agendas and the damage it would inflict on one of our cultural and economic success stories.”

David Smith of Screen Scotland, the Government-backed partnership which champions film and TV north of the Gorder, suggested the effects of privatisation on Glasgow would be “significant and disproportionate”.

He added: “Many of us started our careers working on programmes for Channel 4. Location, Location, Location has been made from Glasgow since it started and was the starting point for literally hundreds of people. From there, we were able to embark on creative careers here in Scotland, many of us going on to start our own businesses that expanded the sector further, creating more jobs. Crucially, we did not need to go to London to have a career. All of that is put at risk by the potential sale of Channel 4 to the highest bidder.

“Screen Scotland has seen no evidence to suggest that Channel 4 would be better placed to deliver sustainably against the UK Government’s “levelling-up” aims for public service broadcasting if it were outside public ownership.”