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What’s behind Channel 4’s US Open final deal with Amazon Prime?

Channel 4 is bearish on its future as talks of privatization rumble on

Channel 4’s last-minute deal with Amazon Prime is a bold assertion by the broadcaster that it can compete in a world where streaming giants hoover up broadcast rights.

While the drama on the US Open courts arrested the UK’s interest over the weekend, much of the real hard graft had already been put in by Channel 4 and Amazon. The broadcaster struck a last-minute deal rumored to be worth seven figures in order to allow viewers in the UK to watch the final matches for free on Channel 4.

The UK broadcaster attracted a reported 9.2 million viewers during the final between Emma Raducanu and Canada’s Leylah Fernandez. Those viewers were also effectively subjected to three hours of Amazon Prime branding during that time, and while Amazon has stated it will reinvest the cost in women’s tennis in the UK, the value of that branding is paramount as the streaming wars continue.

Amazon’s investment in live sport saw it capture the vast majority of new subscribers to streaming services in the final quarter of 2020. It is a major point of differentiation from its rivals including Netflix, Now TV and Britbox – and is causing consternation among linear broadcasters such as Channel 4 and the BBC that no longer have the monopoly on live sports broadcasts. Prime acquired the rights to 20 live Premier League matches per season back in 2019, an agreement set to run through the 2021/22 season.

Channel 4’s chief content officer Ian Katz said: “Emma’s meteoric rise to secure a place in the US Open Final is just sensational. We’re glad to have worked with Prime Video and pulled out all the stops to get it on air and I’m sure viewers will be thrilled at the prospect of watching Emma in this Grand Slam final.

“We didn’t know we’d secured the deal until late on Friday night and so many people have gone above and beyond to make it happen. But Channel 4 is all about finding ways to let our viewers share great national moments, whether it’s Bake Off or big sporting events like the cricket World Cup final or US Open final.”

A sporting chance

It builds upon the work Channel 4 has done to stay relevant in an age of exclusive sports content on streaming. Earlier in the year it also acquired the rights to live coverage of England’s Test cricket series against India – the first time live Test cricket had been on free-to-air television since 2005. Its coverage of the Paralympic Games reached 20 million viewers in the UK.

The success of Channel 4’s deal with Amazon could prove decisive in swinging public perception of the channel as a public good. The Conservative government has repeatedly mooted privatizing the channel – though its remit to provide public service broadcasting and use independent production companies has been cited as an impediment to any such sale.

Much of the government’s reasoning for the privatization has been the changing nature of broadcasting, which has been affected by the rise of streaming services. Questions about the sustainability of advertising-based television have been ongoing for some time, though Channel 4’s outgoing chairman Charles Gurassa has said the channel has plans to move away from overreliance on advertising.

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