What's this Channel for?

I am not a fan of The Great British Bake Off. There, I’ve said it. It doesn’t particularly offend me, I just don’t enjoy watching people baking cakes.

Clearly, mine is a minority opinion, judging by the TV ratings, and the £75-million Channel 4 has agreed to pay for three seasons of the show.

The timing is not ideal — a nakedly commercial grab for a proven hit does not sit comfortably with a channel trying to fight off the threat of privatisation.

When Channel 4 was launched in 1982, ratings were an irrelevance. Bankrolled by a levy on the huge profits of the regional ITV companies, its funding was every bit as secure as the BBC’s.

It may have been a new and deliberately provocative voice, but its early years included plenty of duds (you probably don’t remember “Quilts in Women’s Lives”). Financial security tends to support that kind of experimentation.

In 1993, the umbilical cord was cut, and Channel 4 had to fend for itself. Ratings suddenly became more important. Gradually, the quirky and bizarre were shunted to late-night slots.

At times, Channel 4’s relentless parade of property shows and deliberately shocking documentaries is indistinguishable from BBC1 or ITV. But it’s still more willing to gamble, and provoke, than either of them.

Most of the truly sharp comedy of the last 20 years started on Channel 4, as did many of the most imaginative dramas. And no-one else would have devoted so much time to such comprehensive coverage of the Paralympics.

Channel 4 deserves huge credit for getting behind the Paralympics so wholeheartedly. Its coverage has been excellent, genuinely shifting perceptions, and along the way it created a well-deserved new hit in The Last Leg. It’s exactly the kind of thing Channel 4 is meant to do.

But further radical change could be waiting around the corner. Many viewers probably don’t even realise Channel 4 is publicly-owned. But unlike ITV or Sky, every penny it makes gets reinvested in new programmes.

But a cash-strapped Treasury is paying close attention. Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale refused to rule out privatising Channel 4 — a potential billion-pound payday for the Government.

He was sure potential owners would protect Channel 4’s unique remit. But they would say that, wouldn’t they. If you want to see what happens when you loosen the regulatory shackles, look at ITV’s recent history.

Britain has a finely balanced broadcasting system. The BBC, with the luxury of public funding, Sky, unfathomably wealthy through subscription revenue, and mainstream commercial channels like 5 and ITV.

Channel 4 has a foot in both camps. Chasing audiences with populist shows, but using the profits they generate to subsidise an hour of highbrow news every night, international current affairs and major events like the Paralympics.

In adverts, it’s taken to telling viewers Channel 4 is “funded by advertising and owned by you”. It’s a clever attempt to build up a public loyalty ministers may not want to challenge by selling it to the highest bidder.

In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher wanted to force the BBC to take advertising — she couldn’t, in part because the public wouldn’t accept it. Instead, her government pushed ITV into a decade-long meltdown.

Audiences regularly rise up to defend the BBC from meddling politicians. Channel 4 may soon need the same loud support. Because, you’ll really miss it when it’s gone.