Channel 4 sale 'would raise less than pounds 1bn'

Festival fireworks: Grade vows to fight sell-off all the way as merchant banker warns that C4 is far from being a goldmine
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The Independent Online
Channel 4 would be worth less than pounds 1bn, half the much-publicised earlier estimates, if it were privatised, according to a senior City merchant banker.

Anthony Fry, of BZW, presented the much-reduced valuation to delegates at the Edinburgh International Television Festival yesterday, adding: "Clearly, privatising Channel 4 would not be the goldmine that everybody appears to think.

The prospect of privatisation has been recently floated by the Treasury as a way of raising revenues to fund tax cuts, and could form part of the next Conservative Party manifesto.

But Mr Fry warned: "Any hope of generating a multi-billion pound return for the Government from Channel 4 would have to come from its programming budget as a privatised company."

The likelihood that a privately owned Channel 4 would have to pay a cash bid, taxes and a percentage of its revenue to the Treasury further reduced its attractiveness at the inflated prices so far discussed in the City, he said.

Separately, Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, made his most powerful public comment yet against privatisation, telling delegates in Edinburgh: "I'm angry and sad that the privatisation of Channel 4 is even on the political agenda somewhere between the Treasury and Downing Street. The board of Channel 4 is going to fight this all the way."

Mr Grade said Channel 4's special remit to cater to minority tastes could not survive privatisation. "You can certainly have a privatised Channel 4 or you can have Channel 4 with its full public service remit. You cannot have both.

"The remit works because it is shared between Parliament, the regulators and the board of the channel. The whole purpose of Channel 4 is to operate as efficiently as possible and to deliver the maximum possible resources to that common objective."

Mr Grade concluded his speech by calling on the Government to "dispel this nonsense. Channel 4 works, so can it please be left alone to get on with its job?"

He even made veiled threats that he and other senior executives might not stay with the channel: "If I wanted to work in the commercial sector I would have stayed at ITV or in America. I will fight with every breath in my body against the privatisation of this channel."

That view was disputed by Cento Veljanovski, partner at Case Associates, the management consultancy, who argued that Channel 4 could be privatised with or without its distinctive remit.

He added that the justification for privatisation had been provided by the very success of the channel.

The spectacular rise of Channel 4 in recent years, and the high-profile campaign led by Mr Grade to amend the controversial payments the channel makes to ITV, together convinced the Government to consider the sell-off.

Last year, Channel 4 paid pounds 75m to ITV, under the funding formula. It dictates that the channel must pay the ITV companies a proportion of revenues once its share of advertising reaches 14 per cent. Channel 4 now attracts more than 20 per cent.

Steve Morrison, chief operating officer of Granada Media Group, said that privatisation should be considered if Channel 4 did not change the way it currently scheduled programmes.

"Channel 4 ain't what it used to be," he said. "It has quite simply become a commercial wolf in a public service sheep's clothing."

He criticised the number of repeats, the big proportion of programming imported from the US and what he saw as a lack of commitment to regional programming.

"Channel 4 has really just become Channel Three-and-a-Half," Mr Morrison said. He called on regulators to impose stricter conditions on the channel. "The onus is on those who wish to avoid privatisation to convince us that the channel can be set back on its intended course," he said.

Birt on the Beeb, Section Two, page 21

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