Friday, January 23, 2009

The Downsize

The proposals being floated for the UK's second public service broadcaster, Channel 4, are quite simply mad.

This is a channel that long lost its public service remit and fell into gutter TV as the champion of Big Brother and sensationalist TV, but at the same time has managed to maintain its original remit by the production of series such as Skins and films like Slumdog Millionaire.

Such a mixed package is a difficult creature to place in a country which has a hugely strong PBS sector (the BBC) and an increasingly weak commercial broadcasting sector, which largely imports US programmes wherever it can.

The idea that a PBS station should be allied with an European owned US programme importer like FIVE is laughable and I have no idea who came up with this, but they clearly do not own a TV set or have ever operated in the commercial world. So that probably makes them a civil servant (what an oxymoron that is...).

Merging C4 with the aggressive and highly successful BBC Worldwide is less flawed, but flawed. The hint is in the name... BBC...

In different times C4 would have been floated (as I have long argued it should have been).

And the TV licence should have been abolished, or at the very worst, gone into a pot where any broadcaster can bid for the money (just like production companies bid to broadcasters - it should all be very familiar to them).

These considerations seem to be off the table.

The reality is that C4 still employs 500 people (down from 800), half of which could be let off; have a huge office, which will be difficult to shift now, but downsizing would not be a bad option, and should reap a good harvest from their wise investment in Slumdog Millionaire with its ten Oscar nominations.

Like all other TV stations (and, indeed, most media companies) C4 needs to rebase. What do those 500 people do ? You have ten in senior management, twenty in web, ten commissioners, ten in accounts, ten in marketing, twenty in support services and thirty in sales and commercial. Even if you take this number across the three channels and online service I cannot see how you could justify doubling the headcount. What do the other 400 do ? This is the problem with PBS. The BBC has over 20,000 staff (and probably the equivalent number of contractors), whereas a commercial operation - as ITV is painfully demonstrating - would operate a similar service on a quarter of this budget and therefore be able to invest far more into programming.

We're living in a world where a top TV channel (outside the hallowed and hugely subsidised halls of the BBC) should be run by  twenty or so people. Not the thousand or two thousand that they now employ.

And then they will need to establish lots of small, nimble channels to make up the audiences they have lost to other channels and other media.

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