EXCLUSIVE: UK producers are anxious that Channel 4 is scrambling to delay the premiere of more shows until 2024 for political reasons.
The network has delayed at least 20 launches and several producers told Deadline that they believe Channel 4 wants to run a surplus in 2023 — even in the face of a chastening ad market slump.
The theory among producers is that it could be politically embarrassing for Channel 4 to post a loss so soon after winning the privatization battle, during which it repeatedly emphasized its financial sustainability.
Channel 4 stressed that programs move around the schedules “all the time for a number of reasons including editorial considerations, competitor activity, audience demands and the responsible management of content budgets.”
Deadline has spoken with multiple producers who reported their launch dates being pushed back. These sources estimate that between 20 and 50 shows that were due to launch in 2023 have been delayed to at least Q1 2024 if not beyond.
Some shows, according to sources, have been ‘on the shelf’ for more than a year and producers have been speculating as to the cause of the delays.
Prior to the government U-turn, one of Channel 4’s main arguments against privatization was that, financially, it was in rude health, having turned over £1B ($1.2B) for the first time in 2021. Its most recent annual report showed revenue plateauing while it delivered a surplus of £20M, down from £101M the year prior. The channel also has a £75M revolving credit facility, which some in the indie sector have criticized Channel 4 for not using during these troubled economic times.
Multiple sources landed on the notion that the network is desperate to run a surplus and prove to the UK government that the decision to U-turn on privatization was the right one. For this reason, sources speculated, Channel 4 is delaying launches and therefore keeping shows on its balance sheet as stock, which build towards a surplus. Once launched, programs can no longer be listed in such a way in the broadcaster’s accounts.
A Channel 4 insider pushed against this notion, telling Deadline it is “categorically untrue” that content budgets are being adjusted or shows delayed due to politics or the arguments related to privatization. They stressed that Channel 4’s commitment to sustainability is about “managing finances in a responsible way and with a long-term view,” whether that be in a surplus year or deficit.
Sources nonetheless criticized Channel 4 for prioritizing a surplus over the interests of its production partners, while pointing to splashy investments such as the spend on England soccer rights, which have not been renewed beyond 2024. They told Deadline the delays are frustrating as they are having a knock-on effect on the channel’s commissioning plans, which are already in disarray due to the broader commissioning slowdown and faulty ad market. A delayed launch inevitably leads to delayed decisions around further commissions and recommissions while disrupting the production ecosystem, impacting talent schedules and crew availability, for example.
Chief Content Officer Ian Katz, who has previously said the channel has been “a bit more honest” than rivals about the impact of the 2023 commissioning slowdown, recently said that the vast majority of ideas are now being sought for 2025.
“There is such anger in the indie sector,” said a senior source, pointing to a “chorus of agreement that Channel 4’s management and board need to be held to account.”
Another said delays are “devastating” for small indies with no super-indie backing, who may be hanging on to the hope of a recommission to remain in the black.
A highly-regarded Channel 4 supplier said the broadcaster must “break the glass” on its £75M credit facility to stop some production companies from going bust.
A fourth producer took a more measured approach, finding that it is ultimately Channel 4’s “prerogative” to decide when to launch shows, adding that broadcaster schedules shift all the time.
Channel 4 has stressed that it is still commissioning. On Wednesday, it launched its 2023 Contestable Fund, for which producers pitch ideas for formats that are funded by GroupM Motion Entertainment. The network is seeking ideas “too bold” for other broadcasters that will enter production next year and air in 2025, according to the brief.
The Channel 4 spokesman said: “Channel 4 is a not-for-profit, universal, free, public service media organisation that has put record amounts into British TV and film to consistently show original, relevant and challenging television.
“Programmes move around schedules all the time for a number of reasons, including editorial considerations, competitor activity, audience demands and the responsible management of content budgets. And like most commercial broadcasters, Channel 4 responds to changing conditions in the advertising market by adjusting its content budget, which typically requires the rescheduling of some programmes.
“Channel 4’s ability to respond dynamically to market challenges is one of the reasons it has successfully negotiated multiple downturns, and why it remains well-equipped to navigate the very challenging conditions facing the entire industry.”
The broader commissioning slowdown has been having a devastating impact on the UK production sector and freelance community, with a recent Bectu survey finding that 75% of below-the-line workers were without a job. Channel 4 has been particularly hard hit, starting with the high-profile cancelation of rebooted reality series Four Weddings. Several weeks later, it changed its payment terms on some of its shows, asking certain producers to cash flow their own shows with little warning.