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Channel 4: 'Improved' outlook enables £1.5m furlough repayment

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image caption2019 saw Channel 4 open bases in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol

Channel 4 is to repay the government around £1.5m in furlough payments after finding itself in a "robust financial position ahead of expectations".

It said it expected to end 2020 with a "significant financial surplus" after what chief executive Alex Mahon called "an incredibly challenging year".

"We will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever," she continued.

The public service broadcaster gave an update on its 2020 performance as it published its Annual Report for 2019.

The report's delayed publication comes near the end of a year that saw the channel reduce its 2020 content budget by £150m and put 10% of its work force on furlough.

During a conference call with journalists on Thursday morning, the channel's executives said all those furloughed employees had now returned to work.

Mahon said it had not been too hasty in making use of the government's coronavirus job retention scheme, which chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced in March.

"At the time, like every other business, we didn't have any visibility on future conditions," she said. "We had to be prudent and manage our cash well.

image copyrightC4/Love Productions/Mark Bourdillon
image captionThe Great British Bake Off continues to pull in huge audiences

"We had to make a series of prudent and sensible decisions to make sure we were preserving the organisation for the long term."

The broadcaster said "a better-than-forecast return of the advertising market" was partly behind its improved financial position.

This has allowed it to make a £250,000 donation to the Film & TV Charity's recovery fund for workers in the industry affected by the outbreak.

'Transformational year'

Channel 4 said 2019 had been "a transformational year for the organisation" as it opened new bases in Leeds, Glasgow and Bristol.

It said the new bases, along with investment in its digital output, were partly responsible for a planned pre-tax deficit of £26m.

It said digital views on its All 4 catch-up service had grown by 9% in 2019m, helping to drive an 18% growth in digital revenues to £163m.

Shows like The Virtues and stand-alone Brexit drama The Uncivil War, meanwhile, had resulted in "a stand-out creative year".

More recently, the launch of the latest series of The Great British Bake Off has seen the channel record its biggest audience since 1985.

image copyrightChannel 4/House Productions
image captionBenedict Cumberbatch played Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War

The release of the report comes amid renewed speculation that the government is considering selling off the publicly-owned, commercially-funded broadcaster.

Earlier this month, culture secretary Oliver Dowden said "all options need to be on the table" in the government's upcoming review of public service broadcasting.

Alex Mahon said it was "right and proper" to discuss Channel 4's funding model and that it was "okay to ask questions" about the PSB sector.

She said the fact it was able to repay £1.5m in furlough payments was evidence of the channel's sustainability, "not just now but in the future".

"Channel 4 has come into its own in the pandemic," said station chair Charles Gurassa. "It has reconfirmed our role as a distinctive, trustworthy, independent and authentic British voice.

"As we come towards the end of 2020 the channel is emerging from this most difficult of years in rude financial health and creatively confident and distinct."

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