Channel 4 cuts US imports to boost its public service image

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The Independent Online

Channel 4, which brought hit American shows such as Friends, Cheers and Desperate Housewives to British television screens and made them a staple of modern viewing, says it intends to slash its reliance on US imports and concentrate instead on promoting home-grown content.

Outlining a vision of the future after the digital switchover, and pressing the case for a new and generous financial settlement from the public purse, Channel 4 bosses said yesterday that they would reduce the amount of bought-in programming broadcast by 20 per cent during the next five years. The move is designed to enhance the channel's public service credentials and curry favour with the Government and broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom, as the channel seeks to plug a £150m funding gap when it loses its free analogue spectrum in 2012.

However, Channel 4 indicated it would not be totally abandoning its cash cow Celebrity Big Brother, a show which caused huge controversy last year that threatened to engulf C4's chief executive, Andy Duncan, in an explosive race row. The channel is retaining options on screening at least two more series of the show which drew 8.8 million viewers with the eviction of Jade Goody.

Kevin Lygo, C4's director of television and content, said the channel had been increasingly priced out of the market for top-flight US shows since it first began importing them in the early 1980s. It might no longer be cost-effective, he said, to secure the rights to shows such as ER and Ugly Betty, which had become too expensive despite being huge hits with audiences and advertisers.

Channel 4 was unable to match the spending power of the BBC, which receives a public subsidy of £4bn, he added. The ubiquity of American shows across so many channels now meant they were harder to defend in public broadcasting terms. "We will continue to source the best US television for our discerning audiences but we will continue to reduce the amount we require and the amount we spend," said Mr Lygo.

In the future, he said he wanted to make the channel the "home of the British documentary", broadcasting at least one new peak-time documentary each weekday. He also said Channel 4 would extend its role as the "research and development department for the British creative industries", adding to the net £2bn a year it contributed to the economy. Central to a digital-age Channel 4 would be an enhanced commitment to children's shows aimed at 10 to 15-year-olds. There would also be a further £6m each year for educational multimedia content.

Launching the new blueprint before a gathering of industry chiefs, MPs and advertisers, Channel 4's chairman, Luke Johnson, warned that quality domestic programming could be under threat without adequate public funding.

He suggested that, without proper investment, the popular teen drama Skins, the current affairs programme Dispatches and the cult comedy Peep Show might disappear from the screens, while the award-winning drama Longford might not have been made.

Mr Johnson said there was a growing political consensus to keep the public-private funding formula but would not be drawn on costing the new plans or throw his weight behind a plan to give Channel 4 a slice of the BBC licence fee.

"This is the moment for absolute clarity – we believe Channel 4's ability to invest in greater creative risk would not survive a transfer into private ownership, which is why the board unanimously rejects the option of privatisation.

"It is Channel 4's independence, from shareholders as much as the Government that permits its distinctiveness," he said.

C4's biggest hit imports

Friends Era-defining sitcom, first shown in 1985, that ran for 10 seasons and set a C4 record in 2004 with an audience of 8.9million for the final episode

ER The hospital drama that made George Clooney a star is still going strong after 14 series. Attracted an average audience of 2.6 million in 1999

Cheers Vintage Boston bar comedy spent 10 years on C4 schedules until 1993, eventually giving way to ahugely successful spin off, Frasier

Desperate Housewives Dark tale of suburban women and their men is about to return this month for its third series. Attracts audiences of up to 5.5 million