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Channel 4 is embarking on a fast-turnaround commissioning spree from the nations to ensure it hits its Ofcom target after being blown off course by Covid-19 - while the government raises the prospect of privatising the channel.

According to a report in Broadcast, C4 unscripted commissioners, including Glasgow chief Jo Street, contacted suppliers last month to request ideas that could air this year.

Pandemic-induced production delays have created concerns that the broadcaster could miss its obligation to invest 9% of its spend and commit 9% of its hours to programming from outside of England. 

In March, Ofcom acknowledged the potential disruption of lockdown to the PSBs, stating it may be prepared to consider ‘force majeure conditions’ and not take action over missed requirements.

C4 remains keen to fulfil its commitment and is confident that it will hit the target. The unscripted team presented several proposals from nations-based indies to director of programmes Ian Katz on 18 September.

Indies were asked to share ideas that could variously play against the second series of BBC1’s His Dark Materials in the run up to Christmas, and the return of ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! around the same time.  

However, some suppliers were unsympathetic. One managing director of a nations-based indie told Broadcast that submitting ideas under the circumstances required careful consideration and posed producers serious reputational questions.

“Having to turn something around that is Covid-compliant in just eight weeks is no easy task, and it isn’t in our interests to put our name to any show that isn’t necessarily top quality,” they said.

They said there was a related “opportunity cost” associated with dropping other projects to focus on delivering a fast-turnaround show.

A rival nations chief agreed: “It’s such upheaval considering this is the year that Channel 4 has moved out of London." 

Earlier this month, C4 and Screen Scotland invested a total of £75,000 into Scottish indies Beezr, Firecracker Scotland, Hello Halo and Mentorn Scotland to bolster their development budgets.  

Privatisation threat

Meanwhile, culture minister John Whittingdale appeared to indicate the potential privatisation of Channel 4 was rising up the agenda, in his appearances at both Ofcom's Small Screen, Big Debate event and at a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference.

He told the latter that the prospect is "something we're giving a lot of thought to".

Whittingdale said: “There is a very important debate to be had about Channel 4 because unlike the BBC, it survives without any taxpayer funding as an advertising-funded model. With the advent of the streamers and other competing services, that model is under increasing strain and I’m not sure it is sustainable into the future.

“So we do need to think about Channel 4 and whether or not there is still a need for a second publicly-owned public service broadcaster or what function it should fulfil."

At the Ofcom event the previous day, he said he did not want to "close off any options" regarding Channel 4's future, adding: “The Ofcom review will feed into our thinking and I’m waiting to see what it concludes.”   

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