It is 40 years since Channel 4 was launched in the United Kingdom with a unique public service remit and a lot has changed in the television world. Controversial plans to privatise the state-owned corporation now appear to be up in the air. Given its apparent success in managing a transition to a “digital first” operation, it seems Channel 4 needs little help from the government to secure its future, as evidenced by its annual report.

Channel 4 passed 1.5 billion views on its All 4 online platform in 2021, up from 1.3 billion the previous year, and is aiming for 2 billion by 2025. For comparison, the BBC reported 6.6 billion requests for programmes on the BBC iPlayer, albeit with a far bigger budget.

Online viewing accounted for 13% of all Channel 4 viewing in 2021, up from 9.2% in 2020. That is about the same proportion as the BBC iPlayer constitutes for all BBC television viewing, but considerably ahead of the 4% that ITV Hub contributes to all ITV viewing.

All 4 claims to be Britain’s biggest free online video service by volume of programming, with over 14,500 hours available on demand, which is more than either the BBC or ITV.

Channel 4 says it has 26.8 million registered online viewers, active within the last two years, up from 24.0 million the previous year and 22.2 million the year before that.

The 4Studio business, based in Leeds, also achieved over 11.3 billion views on social media, becoming the biggest social media portfolio on YouTube and Facebooks for 18-34 year-olds in the United Kingdom, reaching more of this group than any other global brand.

With no shareholders to please, other than the viewing public, Channel 4 has pioneered programming with purpose, aiming to create change through entertainment, representing unheard voices.

Channel 4 slightly increased its share of traditional television viewing, up to 10.3%, of which 6.1% came from its main channel. Among those aged 16-34, Channel 4 had a 15% of television viewing across its portfolio of channels, and 7.8% for its main channel.

For comparison, the BBC has 31.5% of traditional television viewing, while ITV has 22.3% and Channel 5 has 6.8%.

Despite the continued effects of the coronavirus pandemic, 2021 was a record year for Channel 4 financially, passing £1 billion of revenue for the first time ever, to reach £1.2 billion, an increase of 25% year-on-year.

Of this, £224 million or 19% came from online advertising, up from 17% the year before, with a target of 30% by 2025.

As a result, Channel 4 achieved a pre-tax surplus of over £100 million, its highest ever, which it will be able to re-invest in programming.

The corporation ended the year with £272 million in net cash reserves and total net assets of £566 million.

That is nothing like the scale of Netflix, which has $6 billion in cash, but then again Channel 4 does not have debts of over $14 billion.

Although Channel 4 only has around 14.8% of commercial television airtime in the United Kingdom across all its channels, it also sells airtime for other channels. Its total sales house revenues amounted to £1.3 billion, representing around 28% of the television advertising market, worth some £4.6 billion in the United Kingdom.

No doubt potential purchasers will be casting an eager eye over the Channel 4 accounts. Whether the legislation to enable a sale will be passed is now open to question.

Chief executive Alex Mahon writes in the foreword to the Channel 4 Annual Report that its ownership “is for Government to propose and Parliament to decide”.

With the conservative party pre-occupied with choosing its next leader and prime minister, it is running out of parliamentary time before the summer recess, after which the privatisation of Channel 4 may appear to be less of a priority.

Channel Four Television Corporation Report and Financial Statements 2021 is available from the Channel 4 web site.