A news item was brought to my attention this morning which suggests that Channel 4 is about to take the axe to some of its news production teams and cut back on the news broadcasts. While it seems that the flagship 7pm news program will be generally unaffected, the cut-backs elsewhere will reduce the available pool of journalists and presenters, and that just has to have some impact eventually.

As it happens, Channel 4 News and Newsnight on BBC2 are pretty much my favourite news programs as they are more in-depth and often run “magazine” items which offer an insight that is overlooked by the mainstream channels – so I am just a tiny bit biased in my thoughts about them.

Incidentally, Newsnight is also facing job cuts.

In an era where television is getting cheaper and increasingly bland or driving by single blockbuster dramas, it is important to preserve quality content for those of us who want it. I rejoiced when BBC4 was launched, as it is basically what BBC2 used to be like about a decade ago, ie, rather good.

Just to be clear about one issue – I don’t dislike the BBC1 stuff, I just like to have a choice of programming that challenges or educates me in addition to the “feet on sofa” stuff I can relax to.

The travails of the broadcasting industry are well known, with an ever fragmenting audience and hence declining advertising per viewer per channel – which in turn forces the channels to lower their budgets to cope. However, are the broadcasters themselves responsible for some of that?

Do we really need the profusion of +1 channels which just repeat the same content an hour later? I even saw  a +1.5 channel lurking on the Sky menu once.

Yes, they are convenient, but an increasing number of homes have digital recorders now, and they can record TV shows and watch them whenever they want – so the cost burden of the +1 channel has effectively switched from the broadcaster to the home owner who invests in these “black boxes”.

According to a blog posting from a very well informed writer, who sadly no longer writes in public, the cost to Channel 4 of running Ch4+1 and E4+1 on the Freeview platform is a staggering £25 million a year. I am unable to find out at a glance what the cost of running those channels is on the satellite platforms, but it wont be insignificant.

Now, I am unsure if it is worth running a lunchtime news program on Channel 4, and as much as I like More4 News when I watch it (which not that often frankly), the viewer numbers are anaemic.

However, to piss £25 million a year down the drain simply so a tiny number of people can watch Dispatches at 9pm instead of 8pm is just asinine.

Channel 4 needs to save money – fine, cut the number of +1 channels and save it there. Consumers who absolutely have to watch TV at a different time to when it is broadcast can already use the internet, or their digital TV recorder.

At the moment, the rest of us are effectively subsidising a tiny minority – and risking the loss of quality programming as a consequence.

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7 Comments

  1. “the rest of us are effectively subsidising a tiny minority ” – not at all like the general public subsidising MP’s second home allowances then?

  2. Darren Bertram

    I am staggered at the £25m cost of the +1 channels on freeview alone – how on earth do they justify that cost?

    • IanVisits

      How Channel 4 justify the spend is one thing, but for the broadcast tower owner, you have to remember that those TV towers are consuming vast quantities of electricity.

      The Crystal Palace TV transmitters alone consumes somewhere between 100,000-200,000 watts of power to power the antenna output (1mw effective radiated output). Scale that up to the entire UK, and the cost of operating the network becomes quite significant.

      As an aside, I am often wryly amused by people complaining about 20kw mobile phone towers, but are not fussed by the 1mw output from TV towers.

  3. Dan

    The cost may be £25m, but what’s the additional ad revenue? These channels may be good income generators. I don’t know the answer, just saying these channels would probably be first against the wall if £25m represented the size of the loss. Running a standalone channel in these slots would cost a lot more than £25m, and there’s no guarantee they’d get more viewers than a +1.

  4. Dan

    Oh – and because digital channels are ‘multiplexed’ – they cost the same to run regardless of how many channels you broadcast on them. So if you switched off More 4+1 and replaced it with nothing, the cost of broadcasting the channels that remained on the multiplex would rise to fill that hole. The same amount of electricity is required, and the same infrastructure. Being digital, probably no extra comms is required to get the signal from C4 to transmitters, as they’d use the same fibre channel as the main C4/E4/Film 4/More4 suite. I would tentatively suggest the only *actual* cost of a +1 channel is the IT infrastructure at the broadcasters end to process the sound & picture stream. (A couple of PCs, probably.) But you can split the overall transmission cost among more channels to make them all look more cost effective.

    Incidentally, the interesting area is the cost of “transmitting” on the internet, as notionally you have to pay bandwidth per user served (although there are obviously deals to be had.) Ultimately, though, the more viewers you have downloading content from your website (whether through streaming or ‘on demand’ download) the more it’s going to cost you. The internet stops being a cost effective delivery mechanism long, long before you’re serving the total number of viewers that C4 or the BBC has through ‘conventional’ delivery methods. No-one ever mentions this … the more people consume old media through the internet, the more it’s going to cost the broadcaster.

    • IanVisits

      I would actually anticipate that the rise of internet viewing should reduce the cost to the broadcaster by shifting the cost burden towards the consumer of the content. I am not sure of the exact mechanisms being deployed by the BBC et al, but for YouTube, the economics are far lower than was recently claimed by a Credit Suisse analyst.

      ISPs are increasingly signing peering deals so that the TV broadcaster really only needs to send the video stream out to the local points of presence infrequently, then the rest of the bandwidth cost is between the ISP and end-user. Much cheaper for the broadcaster, if not necessarily for the end-users who will face increased costs for their last-mile access depending on their usage.

  5. Dan

    I concede the methodologies are changing, but ultimately the charging doesn’t – the difference (advantage??) of broadcast is that your costs don’t change however many users you have. So whatever deal a broadcaster manages to pull off with regards to its internet bandwidth, someone somewhere has to pay on a per-use basis. While we’re walking the tightrope at the moment with ISPs sucking up the cost – probably through general overcharging – at some point the positive margin they have will flip to the negative. And there’s certainly no benefit in investing in improving their infrastructure. Personally I think the BBC (and C4) are a vital part of the British cultural and entertainment industry/landscape – I’m just concerned that the new delivery mechanisms aren’t being properly thought through and that ‘broad’casters should have a greater role in paying for the delivery of their output – not holding ISPs to ransom.

    And actually, I hate the +1 channels – but until someone else is willing to stump up £25m per annum for carriage to replace them with something better, I suspect they will remain.

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