Channel 4 Privatisation: The potential impact on composers

As the process for the privatisation of Channel 4 begins, Mark Sutherland explores what the government’s proposed plans could mean for the musicians and composers that soundtrack its shows.

Mark Sutherland
  • By Mark Sutherland
  • 6 May 2022
  • min read

Big Brother. Brass Eye. The Big Breakfast. Black Mirror. Brookside. And that’s just the Bs… The list of iconic Channel 4 programmes show just how the network has shaped British culture.

And with much of the channel’s extensive catalogue, the soundtrack was every bit as important as the visuals. From the sweeping scores for GBH, Deadwater Fell or Help; to the beautifully curated playlists powering It’s A Sin, Derry Girls or Teachers; via the iconic live performances on The Tube, The Word or Live From Abbey Road; music has been the heartbeat of the UK’s most innovative channel since its launch in 1982. 

Yet the chance to create such treasured cultural moments in the future is now under threat. Last month, the government confirmed plans to privatise the channel, which is publicly owned but does not receive funding from the taxpayer.

'Channel 4 rightly holds a cherished place in British life and I want that to remain the case,' said Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who claims the channel’s current status is 'holding it back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon.'

'A change of ownership will give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future,' she added.

Despite those claims, the move has been criticised by everyone from Sir David Attenborough to Kirstie Allsopp, and musicians and composers are similarly unimpressed, with Jim Williams who composed the score for recent C4 hit Help likening the move to 'selling off the family silver, with the silver being Channel 4 and the talent and creativity it has been able to nurture and invest in.'

'It’s much harder to go with something risky when you’ve got shareholders to satisfy and a profit margin to improve.' 

While UK networks such as ITV and STV are likely to be interested parties, many fear the channel will be bought by an international media company with less interest in harnessing British creativity. And, whoever ends up buying it, a more commercial agenda seems inevitable for a channel that has always prided itself on taking risks and amplifying marginalised voices. 

'It’s much harder to go with something risky when you’ve got shareholders to satisfy and a profit margin to improve,' says Vince Pope, a renowned composer who has worked on such Channel 4 shows as Screw, This Way Up and Misfits. 'I can’t see it as a positive move for creativity.'

Many composers are also concerned that, should an American giant snap up the channel, it could see the ‘buyout’ approach to commissioning music gain traction in the UK. Under such work-for-hire deals, composers are only paid an upfront fee and are expected to give up some or all of their royalties.

'No one ever makes conditions for composers better,' sighs Pope. 'There’s always some way of slicing off something.'

'If [the buyer] was a US company, the work-for-hire and buyout system is pretty entrenched over there,' says Phil Kear, assistant general secretary of the Musicians’ Union, which runs the Composers Against Buyouts campaign with the Ivors Academy. 'There is significant concern for future payments and changing working practices.'

The decision looks even more surprising considering how well Channel 4 is doing in the face of huge competition from international streaming companies. It reaches a bigger audience in the UK than Netflix, despite the latter having a much bigger budget for original content, and its All 4 catch-up service is the biggest free streaming platform in Britain. Netflix, meanwhile, lost 200,000 subscribers in the last quarter and saw its market capitalisation plunge by 35 percent.

'Channel 4 is competitive now,' stresses Kevin Sargent, a successful media composer who got his big film music break on 2001’s Crush, produced by Channel 4’s film arm, Film4. 'The government may be thinking about future-proofing but, as far as we’re concerned, it doesn’t seem to be broken. 

'It’s easy to sell things, but you can’t get them back.'

'Not a penny of public money is spent on it, it’s all funded by advertising,' he adds. 'They’ve got such a history of ground-breaking shows and I’m worried that, when capital comes in, market forces start applying and culturally that’s detrimental.'

Under the current system, Channel 4 does not make its own programmes, but commissions independent production companies, many in regions outside London. They in turn hire composers for the show’s music, regularly taking chances on new or leftfield talent. Any surplus revenues for the channel are ploughed back into programming.

'A big proportion of that is for employing our members to compose and record music for programmes,' notes Phil Kear. 'But under the proposed privatisation, you’re going to have shareholders taking a significant chunk of that money out of the ecosystem, and that’s going to mean less money for making programmes. 

'That means either fewer programmes being made, more repeats, cheaper imported shows or lower production budgets. And music is the first thing that goes in my experience of programme making…'

Once final plans are revealed, the MU expects to step up its opposition, while Kevin Sargent who sits on the Ivors Academy board says the Ivors will be lobbying the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to try and prevent 'the fruits of British creativity leaving these shores.' 

Hopes of a U-turn could also be boosted by a lack of public appetite for the change. The government’s own consultation on the future of Channel 4 showed 96 percent of respondents opposed the plans.

'It’s the jewel in UK TV’s crown. Why would you want to screw it up?'

'The best-case scenario is that there’s enough public antipathy they realise they’ve pursued an unnecessary, unpopular path,' says Vince Pope, who notes public pressure saved an under-threat BBC Radio 6 Music in 2010. 'If the government realises people actually care, they might change their minds because they are capable of that, that’s for sure!

Beyond that, composers and musicians will be praying for a ‘white knight’ buyer prepared to invest in Channel 4 without changing the way it operates.

'It’s the jewel in UK TV’s crown,' notes Phil Kear. 'Why would you want to screw it up?'

With the government also freezing the BBC licence fee and saying the corporation will be funded by alternative means in the future, Kear says these are 'dark times' for public service broadcasting. And Vince Pope warns that, once either decision goes through, it will be irreversible.

'Even if it’s a bad decision, they’re not going to renationalise it,' he warns. 'It’s easy to sell things, but you can’t get them back.'