Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by Channel 4

  1.  Channel 4 was launched in 1982 with a clear mission to provide an alternative public service offering to the BBC and to fulfil a specific remit largely focused on innovation, creativity and diversity.

  2.  Channel 4 has traditionally been a network broadcaster with no opt-out functions, and is therefore dedicated to producing high-quality programming for the UK as a whole through its daily nationwide news provision. Furthermore, given its key role as a major investor in the UK's independent production community and as a public service broadcaster committed to reflecting the UK's cultural diversity, Channel 4 has a significant role to play in supporting production across the nations and regions of the UK and in reflecting the diversity of the UK's culture across its output.

  3.  As discussions around how to secure Channel 4's role as a strong sustainable PSB alternative to the BBC continue, traditional funding models for regional media decline and digital technologies provide new ways of engaging with audiences, Channel 4 is exploring ways that it can enhance this representation of UK life through traditional TV programmes as well as harnessing the opportunities of digital media to provide more localised content online.


  4.  It is clear that audiences value a plurality of regional and local media, both for news and ''non-news'' provision. Users recognise its value in providing content that is relevant to their communities, promoting a sense of cultural identity, and providing a vital democratic function by informing local people about decisions being made in their area.[36]

  5.  In addition, local media organisations have been a valuable training ground for new talent across the country looking to break into television production, journalism and radio. This vocational experience gives entrants the skills and experience necessary to break into a highly competitive field, and has often led to careers within the mainstream media—building a greater diversity of voices and backgrounds.


  6.  However, the impact of the digital revolution combined with the current economic downturn is having a dramatic affect across the media sector—with fragmentation of audiences putting severe pressure on the traditional model of advertising-funded media. This is restricting the provision of public service media across the board—affecting the ability of commercially funded broadcasters such as Channel 4 to maintain investment in high quality public service content, as well as threatening the sustainability of local press, radio and television institutions.

  7.  Digital media has led to a rapid shift in consumer habits, with increasing numbers of people now getting information about where they live from the internet rather than their local newspaper, and classified advertising moving online. This decline is likely to be exacerbated by the current economic downturn, which is having a significant impact on the key advertising markets of the regional press, such as property, cars and jobs, with estimates putting the regional advertising slump between 10% and 40%.[37] Within this context, many local papers are being forced to close—for example, 60 regional newspapers shut in 2008.[38]

  8.  Similar challenges are also being faced by regional television. Like Channel 4, ITV is having to adjust to the structural and cyclical changes in the commercial broadcasting market and is seeking to deal with these pressures by cutting costs in its business. It has stated that its current regional provision is no longer financially sustainable, and has cut the number of flagship services from 17 to 9.[39] The BBC's proposals to assist ITV by sharing newsrooms, technical facilities and video pictures have been welcomed, but both Ofcom and ITV have stated that this agreement does not offer sufficient scale to sustain ITV's regional news provision by itself.[40]

  9.  These changes are likely to have an impact across the sector, including on Channel 4—for example, ITN delivers news to both ITV and Channel 4, and we have a series of reciprocal agreements with ITV through ITN that provides us with access to their regional media resources, such as regional news feeds and facilities. Therefore any significant changes to ITV's regional news structure could affect this provision, leading to additional costs for Channel 4 and potentially impacting upon our own ability to fully represent the UK.

  10.  It is in within this context that Ofcom's CEO Ed Richards recently said that "unless we act soon, a diverse supply of high quality news provision will slip away".[41] Ofcom concluded in their final PSB2 statement that securing plurality of provision of regional news should be a key priority for future regulation, and outlined a proposal for Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) to support the provision of regional and local media. This would allow third parties to pitch for funding to supply regional news, which would be broadcast on existing Channel 3 news slots. ITV has endorsed this proposal, and the Government's interim Digital Britain report suggested that there may be an opportunity for Wales, in partnership with S4C, to act as a pilot study for how the consortia might work.[42]


  11.  As a network broadcaster, it is vital that Channel 4 reflects the diversity of the UK across its output. This portrayal is maintained throughout our distinctive Channel 4 News offering and through a range of key programming genres—with programmes as diverse as Red Riding and Shameless to Dispatches, The Secret Millionaire and Big Art telling different stories about life in Britain.

  12.  Channel 4 also does more than any other broadcaster to support independent television production across the nations and regions of the UK—investing more than £1 billion since 1998 in programmes from companies based outside London.[43] Recognising that more can be done to reflect the devolved nations at a network level, Channel 4 has recently outlined a number of initiatives aimed at increasing network commissioning from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales—including appointing a new commissioner dedicated to working with companies from those nations, and ring-fencing slots in key strands such as Dispatches and Cutting Edge for those companies.

News and representing the UK

  13.  Providing pan-UK news coverage is core to Channel 4's ability to reflect and bring together communities across the UK—connecting audiences across the country to important national stories.

  14.  Channel 4 remains committed to plurality in news provision and will play its part in maintaining a sustainable news alternative to the BBC. While other media organisations reduce their provision of high-quality news, Channel 4 remains committed to its comprehensive Channel 4 News peak-time UK-wide bulletin—which was found by recent audience research of regular TV news viewers to be the most trusted and the most independent news bulletin.[44]

  15.  In addition to the important role of national news provision, Channel 4 also recognises the vital democratic contributions made by regional news, and the very real challenges the sector faces. It is in the interests of democracy that there is a strong alternative to the BBC's news provision at a regional as well as national level, and Ofcom research found that the most important priority for audiences in the devolved nations and English regions is to ensure provision of regional news beyond the BBC.[45]

  16.  Therefore we support a settlement that enables the continuation of regional news provision on ITV, and particularly supports ITN in their efforts to continue as a strong alternative independent news organisation to the BBC. In addition, while Channel 4's future news focus will remain primarily at a network level, given it does not have the resources or infrastructure to provide news at a regional or local level, we believe we can potentially play a role in delivering some additional new forms of regional content going forward.

  17.  For example, we recognise the threat highlighted by Ofcom to both news and ''non-news'' programming in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and in particular recognise there may remain particular outstanding issues surrounding news provision in the devolved Nations. In the absence of ITV and external parties securing a settlement around News for the nations, Channel 4 would be willing, in partnership with ITN, to explore our role in helping to address this issue, in the context of adequate support being made available. Channel 4 is already exploring the contribution it could make to local media and new forms of journalism through harnessing the opportunities of digital media, as outlined below.

Digital opportunities for hyper-local media

  18.  While the digital age has led to some considerable challenges, it is also important to note that it is also presenting particular opportunities for hyper-local media—content that is tailored to small, specific communities. The costly infrastructure of spectrum, television stations and printing presses means that they have never been best placed to provide this kind of truly localised content, but the lower costs of digital media, combined with its participative nature, means that there is now considerable potential to develop hyper-local community-based online content.

  19.  Exploring this potential is a major theme for Channel 4's new digital media fund, 4iP. Its first slate of projects will explore ways in which the more participative nature of digital media can be used to hold power more directly accountable, as well as seeking to address some of the current concerns around digital media's ability to deliver local journalism—such as the lack of investigative journalism and concerns around accessibility. It will explore these themes in partnership with other organisations and community groups to ensure that existing networks are enhanced and supported rather than new destinations created.

  20.  For example:

    Yoosk is a platform that gives the public an opportunity to ask direct questions, and receive answers, from those in power—from the Prime Minister to local authorities. 4iP will be working with Yoosk to develop its service and provide engaging ways of connecting the public with local councils and the local press.

    Help Me Investigate is an interactive tool which aims to demystify and promote investigative journalism. Based in Birmingham, the project will enable citizens to ask questions about local issues (for example, where budgets for council projects have been spent) with the rest of the community encouraged to pool their knowledge and resources to provide the answers. This crowd-sourced, user-generated site will provide ordinary citizens with the tools to organise, manage and pursue an investigation, developing knowledge about those in power and the structures around them as they go.

    — For digital media to become a truly democratic force it is essential that it does not ignore groups, such as the elderly and disadvantaged, who may not yet have online access—but to whom community information is vital. 4iP is therefore working with UK Online Centres to develop Talk About Local—a project which works with disadvantaged groups to develop their own locally-based websites. Talk About Local will provide digitally excluded groups with the skills and confidence to engage with digital media, producing hundreds of independent community sites owned, maintained and updated by local volunteers, and providing a forum for people to hold their local authorities and organisations to account.

  21.  While Channel 4 does not previously have a tradition of developing this kind of local content, the potential of digital media to engage communities more directly means that these projects are enabling Channel 4 to meet its public purposes, such as championing alternative voices and inspiring new ways of looking at the world, in ways that may not have previously been possible through broadcast media. Through 4iP Channel 4 will use its brand potential, creative knowledge and partnership experience to bring scale, expertise and impact to new kinds of publicly valuable digital media projects.

  22.  However, Channel 4 is facing severe structural challenges that are restricting its long-term ability to invest in innovative public service content of this kind. The Government's Digital Britain review is currently considering ways of securing plural public service provision of news, current affairs, large scale UK content, investment in independent and regional production and serious factual programming across linear and digital platforms. Channel 4 believes it can play a vital role in delivering these objectives and is pressing the Government in the Digital Britain process for a long-term funding solution that can underpin its ability to do so.


  23.  Channel 4 believes that it can play an important role going forward in reflecting the lives of citizens across the UK—through representation at a network level, maintaining significant investment in the creative economy of the nations and regions and exploring the role of digital media to engage communities and develop new forms of journalism. However, this role should be performed within a broader ecology of strong media organisations that can provide a plurality of high-quality public service content at national, regional and local levels, beyond the BBC.

  24.  Securing this provision requires separate solutions to Channel 4's own challenges. We therefore believe that other providers should have the opportunity to bid for funds to make content in some of the under-served areas identified by the Government. C4 recognises the challenges facing regional news, ITV and ITN, and believes that it is vital to democracy that there is a viable, independent alternative to the BBC at national and regional levels. Channel 4 therefore believes that a contestable fund which is open to bids from a wider range of content providers, would potentially help to secure plurality, alongside the BBC and Channel 4, in specific areas such as regional news.

  25.  The fund would need to be of sufficient scale to ensure that it can sustain content that achieves reach and impact: a key consideration if funding was not won by an established institution. It should also not be exclusively restricted to the production and delivery of linear content but should support innovation in multi media and digital content.


  26.  Channel 4 has traditionally been and will continue to be a primarily network broadcaster. However, as discussions continue about how best to sustain a second public service broadcaster of scale to compete with the BBC, it will explore the role it can play in representing the UK more effectively by enhancing its commissioning from the nations and regions of the UK and delivering new kinds of regional content through digital platforms.

  27.  While digital media is opening up new opportunities to deliver some content more effectively, the profile and accessibility of press and broadcast media and its investment in original newsgathering and creative skills means that the sector is still important as a democratic force and continues to be highly valued by users.

  28.  As the Government concludes its Digital Britain review, Channel 4 therefore recommends that support should be given that provides a plurality of high-quality public service content across national, regional and local levels. This should include support to secure Channel 4's long-term role as a UK-wide public service broadcaster investing in original innovative British content—including impartial news, current affairs, factual programming, and independent and regional production—as well as additional competitive funding to sustain a sufficient range of regional and local news.

May 2009

36   Ofcom "Putting Viewers First" 2009. Back

37   MediaGuardian "Stop Press" 3.4.09. Back

38   MediaGuardian "Stop Press" 3.4.09. Back

39   Ofcom "Putting Viewers First" 21.01.09. Back

40   Ed Richards speech on "Independently Funded News Consortia", 28.04.09. Back

41   Ed Richards speech on "Independently Funded News Consortia", 28.04.09. Back

42   Digital Britain interim report, 20.01. 2009. Back

43   "Channel 4's contribution to the nations and regions" EKOS, 2007. Back

44   Channel 4 commissioned survey from YouGov, January 2009. Back

45   Ofcom "Putting Viewers First" 21.01.09. Back

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