Earlier this month, U.K. Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries confirmed plans to sell Channel 4, citing the need to compete with the global streamers and saying that the proceeds of the sale would be put into independent production and creative skills in priority parts of the country.
Sections of the industry did not take kindly to the plan, leading to arguments and counter-arguments in the U.K. media.
Tessa Ross, BAFTA winner for outstanding British contribution to cinema, whose credits include “Billy Elliott,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Last King of Scotland,” “Ex Machina” and “Room,” and who has served as controller of film and drama at Channel 4, and as British Film Institute and National Film and Television School governor, is one of those unhappy with the decision. Ross currently serves as co-CEO of House Productions (“Brexit”).
“What’s going on with Channel 4 is clearly going to be a large and loud conversation over a period of time now, and the government’s intention is now obviously very clear. It’s extremely frightening and very worrying, because the understanding is missing,” Ross tells Variety. “Where does the conversation start? How do we have the debate honestly, so that it’s not seen as punishment or misunderstanding about what bottomline businesses do.”
While Channel 4 is publicly owned, it is not publicly funded like the BBC. It is funded from advertising revenues. Channel 4 commissions U.K. content from some 300 companies in the country’s independent production sector.
“In the end, of course, money comes and goes, but when you’re protecting your culture, you have to have a constant sustainable way of doing it. And that’s not what a foreign buyer will do to Channel 4,” Ross said. “We’ve always protected Channel 4, because it’s ours, we all own it. And a publicly owned organization is something that can find a sustainable way of being, it’s always got to work within the vagaries of the landscape, which at the moment is to do with ad revenue, and, as the government has expressed it, the large guns of Netflix and Amazon.”
The primary source of BBC income is the annual licence fee, which Dorries froze for two years earlier this year, meaning that the corporation will have to absorb inflation, currently at 7%, for that period, and find a hefty chunk of savings.
The BBC has identified savings despite a real-terms 30% reduction in income but has said that further savings will involve difficult choices that will impact programs and services.
“When it comes to the BBC, we fight them on the beaches, we’ve got this extraordinary organization, which stands for so much more than just itself. And that’s the point,” Ross said. “Netflix, Amazon, Apple, everybody would say that the creative risk, the creative drive, the ambition, the trustworthiness of that organization, actually feeds them.”
Mini-series “Life After Life,” based on Kate Atkinson’s bestselling novel, on which Ross is one of the producers, is available on BBC One and iPlayer from April 19.
“We’re so lucky that we’re able to risk supporting baby talent, early talent, strange projects, this project [“Life After Life”], the things that fuel our British imagination in all its different varied forms are about where we’re from and who we’re talking to,” adds Ross.
Ross said that some of the British films and programs talk beyond the U.K., like “Slumdog Millionaire” and some work within, like “This is England.”
“That’s why we have to fight for these organizations. That’s why we have to stand up and say, they matter beyond bottomline success,” said Ross. “Yes, it’s scary, but that’s why we’re doing it. We’re not doing it to protect ourselves. We’re doing it because we believe our stories are compelling, and people were supporting.”
“Life After Life” is directed by John Crowley, BAFTA winner for “Brooklyn” and “Boy A.”
“I don’t know who else would have given us the space to make this in the way that we’ve made it – and, I’ve worked in lots of different homes and been very happy to,” says Crowley about the “Life After Life” adaptation at the BBC. “We were able to serve this material in a way that feels very true to its essence, and not necessarily true to the marketplace, as it were.” The existence of these organizations are “bigger than bottomline” Crowley adds, saying, “something very precious could be very easily damaged or lost. And so it’s terrifying.”