Channel 4 chairman shrugs off sale talk as advertising rebounds

Ben Woods
·3-min read
Cast of The Great British Bake Off - Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions
Cast of The Great British Bake Off - Mark Bourdillon/Love Productions

The chairman of Channel 4 said the broadcaster had emerged stronger from the "biggest crisis" in TV advertising history as he rebutted criticism from ministers over its business model. 

Charles Gurassa brushed aside comments by media minister John Whittingdale that its advertising model was under "considerable strain" and may not be sustainable in the future. 

Mr Whittingdale's claims earlier this month were followed by revelations in The Telegraph that ministers were weighing plans to bring in a "deep-pocketed" investor as part of a review that could see part or all of Channel 4 sold off. 

The broadcaster, which is funded by advertising but government owned, was forced to slash its production budget by £150m, find £95m in savings and use loans following the pandemic-induced advertising downturn. 

However, Mr Gurassa said Mr Whittingdale's comments did not take into account Channel 4's 2020 performance, which is poised to record a "significant financial surplus".

That was driven by a better-than-expected rebound in the advertising market, which dropped by as much as 50pc when the pandemic took hold. 

As Channel 4 published its 2019 annual report, Mr Gurassa said: "We have come through the biggest crisis in the history of TV advertising and have emerged financially stronger, creatively stronger, more relevant to our audiences and with really impressive digital growth, so I think our own story speaks for itself."

The Great British Bake Off broadcaster fell to a £26m loss last year as it opened new bases in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol following pressure from ministers to shift operations outside London. 

Chief executive Alex Mahon said the pandemic had forced it to think about how its offices will be used in the future, but it would not make any "permanent decisions until we are in a settled environment".

Channel 4 recorded "huge growth" at the height of lockdown, with the viewing share for 16 to 34-year-olds rising by a fifth. 

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Its on-demand platform All 4 also enjoyed a 54pc rise in viewers between the end of March and beginning of July. 

The broadcaster said its strong viewing performance coupled with a rebound in advertising meant it could repay £1.5m to the Government for furloughing staff. 

It also meant Channel 4 had an extra £11m to spend on productions this year ahead of its content budget increasing "significantly" in 2021. 

Ms Mahon said the broadcaster had to remain "careful and prudent" in the face of the pandemic and had plans in place to cope with a second nationwide lockdown. 

"The issue is the combination of volatility and the lack of visibility, but I feel we are well covered for that," she added. 

Channel 4 said 2019 was a transformational year, with hits such as The End of the F***ing World and Brexit: The Uncivil World helping revenues rise £10m to £985m. 

All 4 posted 9pc growth, with digital advertising sales now counting for 17pc of total revenues.