Almost since Channel 4 launched 38 years ago, with the first episode of Countdown, there has been speculation that it is facing privatisation.
In January 1983, just two months after the channel launched, Kevin Goldstein-Jackson – the executive who helped launch hits like Tales of the Unexpected and who later headed the ITV franchise operator Television South West – was calling for it to be privatised.
As Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation revolution rolled on through the 1980s, the calls kept coming, often from surprising directions.
In 1987, Michael Grade, who was then managing director of BBC television and who later went on to be dubbed Britain’s ‘pornographer in chief’ when he became Channel 4’s chief executive, said “it would be a very good thing indeed for British broadcasting if that were to happen”.
Somehow, though, Channel 4 managed to remain state-owned. The last serious calls for the broadcaster to be privatised came after David Cameron’s 2015 general election victory, when John Whittingdale, the then Culture Secretary and Matt Hancock, the then Cabinet Office Minister, were said to be pushing for it.
A key aspect to their proposal was that it would raise up to £1bn for the government.
Now, however, privatisation talk is again in the air.
The Financial Times reported on Friday that Channel 4 will be “steered towards privatisation” by the UK government as soon as next year. It said ministers were set to launch a formal consultation within weeks on the future of the broadcaster.
This could, according to the FT, even see an outright sale of Channel 4.
Ominously for Channel 4, which has always opposed being privatised, the FT said the consultation would be run by Mr Whittingdale himself.
There are a number of reasons why the idea has resurfaced now. The first is that, in the eyes of some in government, Channel 4’s business model is under pressure. As a free-to-air broadcaster that has few programme rights to exploit, it is unusually exposed to the vagaries of the advertising market, as has been shown during the last year.
The broadcaster reported a pre-tax loss of £26m in 2019 – Channel 4 itself has put this down to the cost of opening its new site in Leeds – but then suffered a collapse in advertising revenues when the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March last year.
For its part, Channel 4 itself has said that it expects to report a surplus for the year, with advertising having bounced back strongly in the second half of the year.
The broadcaster also shored up its finances with aggressive cuts to its budget during the pandemic and by taking out loans. One indication of its recovery to financial health was that it repaid furlough money to the Treasury as long ago as last autumn.
It is also argued that the rise of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, Disney+ and Netflix and the continued strength of multi-channel television broadcasters like Sky, the owner of Sky News, makes Channel 4 vulnerable to a loss of viewers that would eventually hit its advertising revenues.
Channel 4 has responded by arguing that, in 2020, it actually raised its share of television viewing, not only in terms of linear television, but also via digital platforms. It said at the end of last year that digital viewing now accounted for one in every eight hours of Channel 4 viewing.
Despite all this ministers fear that, as a business, Channel 4 is unusually vulnerable.
Earlier this year, Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, vetoed the reappointment of two of Channel 4’s directors, Uzma Hasan and Fru Hazlitt, even though both Channel 4 itself and Ofcom, the broadcasting regulator, were supportive.
It was reported at the time that Mr Dowden wanted the two women, both of whom come from a production background, replaced with new directors boasting more financial experience.
Another reason why privatisation may be back on the agenda is the public finances.
Some in Whitehall believe that a significant sum of money could still be made from a sale of Channel 4 – although most analysts who have run the numbers believe any sale proceeds would fall well short of the £1bn mooted six years ago.
It is also argued that a new owner for Channel 4, with deep pockets, might help ensure the quality of its output. The problem is that there are few obvious buyers out there for the channel.
Most of the big US buyers who might be interested are focused on other things while Channel 4’s relative lack of intellectual property rights – a big contrast with, for example, ITV – means there would be few gains to be made by a big media buyer.
Viacom-CBS, the owner of Channel 5, is seen as the likeliest buyer but it, too, is more focused currently on building its streaming service, Paramount+, as well as trying to shore up confidence among its investors after a calamitous drop in its share price earlier this year related to the collapse of the hedge fund Archegos Capital.
Investors also suspect Viacom-CBS will be looking to conserve capital to invest more in content as it battles it out with rivals like Netflix and Disney, whose Disney+ streaming service has strongly outperformed Wall Street’s expectations, rather than use it buying an asset like Channel 4.
Moreover, if any of the big US broadcasters were interested in acquiring a UK free-to-air broadcaster, they are far more likely to alight on ITV which, unlike Channel 4, has its own production arm in ITV Studios and far more intellectual property assets to exploit.
That might make a flotation on the stock market, which would provide Channel 4 with more access to capital, as a likelier outcome – although it has been speculated in some quarters that ITV itself might be a buyer.
Expect Channel 4 to strongly resist any attempt to privatise it.
In the past the broadcaster has been able to muster a substantial lobbying campaign, relying on members of the arts establishment, to argue that its remit to produce distinctive programming would be jeopardised by a change of ownership.
It is also likely to point to the fact that it is a major investor in British content and spends heavily with independent production companies.
That, however, is a harder argument to make when the likes of Sky and Netflix are investing record sums in British programming, when the BBC’s drama output is still scoring hits and when ITV’s production arm is in such fine fettle.
In short, a lot of the arguments Channel 4 has used to resist privatisation in the past may not be as pertinent as was once the case.
This may represent Mr Whittingdale’s best opportunity yet to push for a policy he has sought for 25 years.
Branson-backed Virgin Voyages sets sail on quest for new funding
Sir Richard Branson’s cruise-line venture is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in fresh funding even as the Virgin Group founder faces financial turbulence in other parts of his business empire.
Sky News has learnt that Virgin Voyages is in the early stages of plans to raise a substantial sum of money from new and existing investors.
Sources close to the situation said this weekend that it was too early to determine the scale of the prospective fundraising, or the mix of debt and equity it would involve.
The disclosure of Virgin Voyages’ talks to secure new capital comes just days after Virgin Orbit, Sir Richard’s commercial satellites business, said it would lay off the majority of its staff and cease operations after running out of money.
He injected $11m into the business this week to fund the redundancies of nearly 700 staff.
Its looming collapse is a blow to the tycoon as well as public market investors who backed Virgin Orbit’s 2021 merger with a special purpose acquisition company listed in New York at a valuation of over $3bn.
Virgin Voyages also launched in 2021 – following a 15-month delay caused by COVID-19 – with its maiden journey from Portsmouth in August of that year.
It operates two cruise ships – the Scarlet Lady, which sails between the US and Caribbean, and the Valiant Lady.
A third vessel, the Resilient Lady, comes into operation next month, with a fourth, Brilliant Lady, due to be delivered later this year.
The company is 20%-owned by Sir Richard’s Virgin Group, and like the entrepreneur’s other ventures, was conceived with the intention of disrupting industries beset by an absence of innovation or focus ocustomer service.
During his decades in business, Sir Richard has funded forays into banking, space tourism, aviation, insurance, soft drinks and telecoms.
A number of those businesses, such as Virgin Money and Virgin Galactic, are listed in London and New York respectively.
Others, including Virgin Atlantic Airways, are privately held, with Sir Richard’s holding company owning significant stakes.
The pandemic badly hurt Virgin’s consumer and leisure-focused companies, prompting the tycoon at one point to warn that he may be forced to mortgage his Necker Island home.
He has raised billions of dollars from the sale of shares in Virgin Galactic, using part of the proceeds to fund capital injections into Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Orbit.
Some of those share sales came during a period when he also sought emergency financial support from the government to shore up his airline business.
Virgin Voyages’ latest talks about raising funding come just seven months after it secured $550m from investors led by funds managed by BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager.
“Despite the unprecedented challenges the cruise sector has faced in the past few years, the industry is exhibiting a powerful rebound,” Brendan Galloway, director at BlackRock Global Credit said at the time.
“We are excited to invest in Virgin Voyages on behalf of our investors as we see a positive outlook and impressive growth on the horizon for the company.”
Bain Capital, the private equity firm, and Virgin Group also participated in that round.
Its adult-only trips sail to 100 ports, including in Australia and New Zealand from later this year.
Among the accolades cited by Virgin Voyages during its first 18 months in operation are recognition on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2022 Cruising ‘Hot List’, and being named best new cruise ship by Cruise Critic.
This year, the company says it has seen “exponential growth in bookings, including industry leading re-bookings, from customers”.
A Virgin Voyages spokeswoman declined to comment on its funding discussions.
Thousands of small businesses face ‘tough decisions’ after change to energy scheme
Hundreds of thousands of small businesses could face “tough decisions” following changes to the energy support scheme, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.
The Energy Bills Discount scheme has been introduced to provide UK businesses, charities and the public sector support with energy bills.
This scheme for non-domestic energy users will see discounts provided on high energy bills until 31 March 2024.
Until now, the Energy Bill Relief scheme capped energy costs, but the new support measure will only see bills discounted.
The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) estimates around 370,000 small businesses will be negatively impacted by it.
Craig Beaumont, Chief of External Affairs at the FSB, told Sky News that these small businesses will face “tough decisions” in the months ahead.
He said: “We’ll see some small businesses reduce their hours of operation, we’ll have some having to let staff go, or look at other major expenditures.
“We expect some small businesses to close down altogether.”
Mr Beaumont added that the new support scheme “won’t help their bills”.
He said: “The first government energy scheme was a fixed price, this second scheme is only a small discount, which means that while before you’d have your bill cut to about 25% of what it would’ve been, your new bill will be nearly exactly where it was last August.
“For a specific group of firms this is really bad news – if you’re variable tariff or if you’re out of your contract you’re okay.
“But if you’re fixed – especially if you fixed last August – you’re in serious trouble.”
Ruby Byrne, owner of Ruby B Salon, told Sky News that her “worst case scenario” is struggling with costs so much that she has to sacrifice the service she provides her clients.
She’s already considering solutions should she struggle to pay bills.
Ms Byrne said: “In the 13 years that I’ve been open, I’ve only ever increased my prices once.
“I may have to do it again so that’s going to affect what clients I get, if they come back, and how often they come.
“That’s obviously going to affect my business.”
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A government spokesperson told Sky News: “Companies large and small will benefit from the baseline discount through our new energy bills scheme and do not need to apply for it, and a higher level of support will be provided to the most energy and trade-intensive businesses of all sizes.
“While no national government can control the global factors pushing up the price of energy and other business costs, we continue to stand by business.
“That’s why we provided them and other non-domestic energy users with an unprecedented package of support, enabling some businesses to pay around half of predicted wholesale energy costs this winter.”
Plans to accelerate rise in state pension age frozen
The government has frozen plans to accelerate the rise in the state pension age.
Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride confirmed the move following newspaper reports that suggested the government was erring over the plans.
The age at which the state pension is payable currently stands at 66, and by the end of 2028, it will have risen to 67.
Increasing the state pension age to 68 was scheduled to happen between 2044 and 2046 – but ministers had been contemplating bringing that forward to between 2037 to 2039.
Mr Stride said he agreed the rise in the state pension age from 66 to 67 should occur between 2026 and 2028 as planned, but that parliament should “consider the rise to age 68 again”.
He said that decision will be delayed until after the next election, with another review taking place “within two years of the next parliament”.
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Increasing the state pension age had been on the cards because of the trend of people living longer. However, the coronavirus pandemic changed that, reducing the life expectancy for women by one year and 1.3 years for men – removing a key justification for changing the rules.
The decision to delay the changes could also have been influenced by France – where violent protests have erupted at President Emmanuel Macron’s proposals to raise the state pension age to 64 – and the Tories’ own electoral prospects.
Mr Stride told MPs: “Given the level of uncertainty about the data on life expectancy, labour markets and the public finances, and the significance of these decisions on the lives of millions of people, I am mindful a different decision might be appropriate once these factors are clearer.
“I therefore plan for a further review to be undertaken within two years of the next parliament to consider the rise to age 68 again.”
‘Responsible and reasonable approach’
The cabinet minister defended his approach, saying it “continues to provide certainty for those planning for retirement” while ensuring in the longer term, it is “sustainable and fair across the generations”.
He said the government “remains committed” to the principle of the 10-year notice of changes to the state pension age.
“The approach I’m setting out today is a responsible and reasonable one,” he said.
“One that continues to provide certainty for those planning for retirement, while ensuring that we take the time to get this right for the longer term, so that the state pension can continue to provide security in retirement and is sustainable and fair across the generations.”
Mr Stride confirmed that the increase in life expectancy has “slowed” since the first state pension age review was carried out in 2017 – a trend he said was being seen “to a varying degree across much of the developed world”.
He cited an independent report by Baroness Neville-Rolfe carried out in 2022, which he said “highlights an important challenge: a growing pensioner age population and the affordability and fiscal sustainability of the state pension”.
“As a society we should celebrate improvements in life expectancy, which has driven rapidly over the past century and is projected to continue to increase,” he said.
‘Not exactly a sign of strength’
The announcement swiftly received a hostile reception from former cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who said: “Unlike the Labour Party I don’t welcome this decision.
“That life expectancy from retirement from the 1940s to today has increased by seven years, which would indicate a retirement age of 72 rather than of 67 or 68.
“The benefit of long-term decision-making is that it gives everybody the chance to plan well in advance. And the delaying the decision is a decision in itself, and is not exactly a sign of strength.”
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Labour’s shadow work and pension secretary Jon Ashworth welcomed the delay but said the stalling life expectancy rates that drove it were a “damning indictment”.
“Today’s announcement that they are not going ahead with accelerating the state pension age is welcome, and it is the right one,” he said.
“But it is the clearest admission yet that a rising tide of poverty is dragging life expectancy down for so many, and stalling life expectancy, going backwards in some of the poorest communities, is a damning indictment of 13 years of failure which the minister should have acknowledged and apologised for today.”
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