Channel 4 could be sold off as soon as next year, with the government planning to launch a formal consultation into the broadcaster’s privatisation within weeks.
Last month, the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, confirmed it may move to privatise Channel 4 by the end of the current parliament to “provide a sustainable future for the broadcaster”, but on Thursday the Financial Times reported that a decision could be made by the end of this year.
John Whittingdale, the culture minister with responsibility for broadcast policy, will oversee the consultation.
He first advocated for the 38-year-old channel’s privatisation in 1996. The government also considered a sell-off when Whittingdale was culture secretary in 2015 but ultimately backed down.
The aim is to pass legislation to implement the changes by the end of 2022, according to sources familiar with the discussions, the FT reported.
During a meeting of the digital, culture, media and sport select committee in May, Dowden repeated that the privatisation of Channel 4 was “on the table” as part of a government review of public service broadcasting first announced in October 2020.
He said a sale was not definite but that the “rapidly changing broadcasting landscape”, with the growth of Netflix and Amazon Prime, meant sweeping changes were possible.
When asked directly if Channel 4 could be privatised before the end of this parliament, Dowden answered: “We have not ruled that out, no.”
Last year Whittingdale said: “Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 survives as an advertising-funded model. With the advent of the streamers and other competing services that model is under considerable strain.
“We do need to think about Channel 4 and whether there is still a need for a second publicly owned public service broadcaster, or what function it should fulfil. And that is something we are giving a lot of thought to.”
Channel 4 was launched in 1982 as a publicly owned, commercially funded public service broadcaster.
It does not receive public funding but is ultimately owned by the government, with all money going back into the broadcaster, which commissions all of its programmes from independent producers.
The broadcaster saw off a previous bid by the government to force it to move its headquarters outside London, instead agreeing to set up three regional bases in Leeds, Bristol and Glasgow.