The newly elected Conservative government is exploring all the options for privatising Channel 4, but faces a complex legislative pathway

The privatisation case would be made easier if the current model were unsustainable. Only, Channel 4 is delivering its remit with great success, is commercially sustainable, and promises both to remain highly sustainable and grow its PSB contribution through its current licence ending in 2024

Channel 4 privatisation offers small returns to the Treasury as long as the remit, IP ownership restrictions and ban on vertical integration remain in place

The government is expected to announce a Digital Bill in Q1 2016 that will propose profound changes to the structure and funding of the public service broadcasters (PSBs) in television, one of its aims being to enable them to extract retransmission fees from pay-TV platforms, valued at £200 million a year or more for the commercial PSBs

So far the government has only committed itself in its March 2015 consultation paper to the repeal of Section 73 of the Copyright, Designs and Patent Act (CDPA 1988), which in isolation will adversely impact only the Virgin Media cable platform

Now its ambitions appear to go far beyond introducing retransmission fees towards dismantling the entire UK PSB TV regulatory infrastructure of privileges and obligations and paving the way towards vacation of the DTT spectrum

After a testing 2013, which saw an 11% fall in audience share of main Channel 4, 2014 has seen a £30 million increase in total revenues to £938 million and return to financial surplus for the first time since 2011

Channel 4 is much more challenged than any other PSB group as well as much of the non-PSB sector by the steep recent decline in viewing among younger age-groups, yet has stuck close to its public service remit of reaching out to the 16-34s and a wide selection of minorities while maintaining its investments in programme origination

A buoyant TV advertising climate, innovative approach to content investment and focus within the digital space on getting to grips with the changing viewing behaviours of the 16-34s point to strong revenue growth in 2015

The US is seeing steep decline in measured TV viewing by younger age-groups and rapid increase in digital media adspend, prompting fears about the future of TV ad revenues across the major broadcasters and cable networks. The UK has seen similar trends, prompting suggestions that it will see similar effects

However, comparison of US and UK TV ad revenue trends since 2000 shows big differences in the underlying growth rates after taking economic factors into account. These undermine the inference that the decline in viewing and rise in digital adspend will have similar effects on either side of the Atlantic

Examination of the US and UK TV ad markets further points to big differences across a raft of major variables relating to supply and airtime trading practice, such as can be expected to yield very different outcomes with respect to TV ad revenue growth

Prospects for European free-to-air commercial broadcasters are clouded by a weak advertising recovery, decline in TV set viewing by younger age groups and increased competition from pay-TV and international operators

Growth opportunities are nevertheless to be found in fine tuning families of channels to sustain audience shares, increased production of differentiating original content, wider HD and catch-up programmes distribution and smart pay-TV developments – broadcasters must focus on strengthening the quality gap between the TV set experience and online entertainment

ITV has shown the greatest increase in profitability, benefitting from its global production strategy. RTL and ProSiebenSat.1 have a modest upside from carriage fees for HD channels but production and pay-TV initiatives have yet to pay off. TF1 and M6 have withdrawn from pay-TV and face regulatory obstacles to launching channels and production investments. Mediaset in Italy should benefit from the ad market stabilising, but risks large pay-TV losses. In Spain, Mediaset and Atresmedia enjoy an ad boom

For the second year running, 2014 has seen a steep year-on-year decline in total daily average viewing time, which fell by almost 5%, and was again, as in 2013, greatest among younger age demos, especially among children aged 4-15 where the decline reached double figures

Connectivity and the rapidly growing population of smartphones and tablets appear the main, though not the only, causes of a decline that appears general across the main PSB, PSB family and non-PSB channel groups. The decline nevertheless varies by channel genre, with the more youth oriented, such as Children and Music, feeling the connectivity squeeze the most

Whilst the great majority of non-PSB channels are only available on the pay-TV platforms, the DTT platform provides a significant audience and advertising contribution (ballpark estimate of £150-200 million per annum) to the relatively small group of leading free-to-air non-PSB channels, which are also less constrained in developing their online initiatives than the mixed advertising/subscription non-PSB channels on the pay-TV platforms