1 January 2002

Ian Beaumont on the eras of the fourth channel

When Channel 4 actually launched in 1982, it was the culmination of a process that had been going on for some 20 years or more. Channel 4 was not the first incarnation of the second independent channel, but simply the one that got to air.

Back in the 1950s the original plan was for the regions to have not one but two independent networks of regional stations. Would this have worked, and would have it have been the right thing? Unquestionably, the answer would be yes.

Look at how competition has kept the US network market active and indeed competitive. To think that US primetime drama series have budgets in the range of $1.5 million an episode upwards, compared to here in the UK where £150,000 an episode is more the average.

However, competition in some of the more minor TV regions would have to wait for the first network to be more or less established, before competition would be pushed onto them. Whilst London could have had 3 or 4 regional franchises by the late 60s, the South West or the Borders would have probably had to wait until the 1980s for competition to arrive.

This generation of the fourth channel would carry on until about the mid-70s when the idea of a second regional network got quietly dropped, but the thought of what to put on a fourth TV channel was still on the minds of politicians.

In the 1979 general elections, one of the issues in the manifestoes was the Fourth TV channel. Labour was proposing creating a new authority for this channel, called the Open Broadcasting Authority. This was leading down the path towards a channel of public and community access programming.

The other idea from the Tories was for a second independent advertising-funded TV channel. Unlike the original idea for the second independent regional network, this was to be a national channel.

Well, the ITV companies didn’t like this idea of a national channel competing with them for ad revenue. So there was a fair amount of lobbying to change the plans for this national channel. During the election campaign and the time that followed, the fourth channel was effectively in a kind of limbo.

With the arrival of Channel 4 and S4C, we saw the real second generation of the fourth channel. These channels had remits to fulfil, and fulfil them they did. They provided a commercially funded, but public service alternative to the more commercial ITV.

S4C, through the BBC and HTV, provided welsh language programming that had previously been shown across BBC1, BBC2 and ITV, whilst Channel 4, through the various ITV companies and other independent producers, provided programming that wouldn’t find a majority audience. ITV even went as far as transferring some of their less popular current programmes, and some of their archive programming onto the new channel.

In essence what we saw was a national ITV2 in all but name. The less popular programmes, the archive programming, the basic level programming that would have been equally at home on an ITV regional franchise, even shared coverage with ITV Sport, and ITV Schools being moved to the channel in 1987, all these factors pointed to Channel 4 being an ITV company in all but actual name.

The Broadcasting Act of 1990 brought into law many changes for Channel 4, not least the fact they were going to be self-financing. From 1990 until 1993, we saw Channel 4 evolve into their next generation, going from a commercially subsidised, public service company, to being a commercial television, public owned corporation, that sold it’s own advertising instead of relying on subsidies from the regional ITV companies.

In September 1993, when ITV Schools on 4 became Channel 4 Schools, the last vestiges of Channel 4 being an ITV company were swept away, and Channel 4 entered its own second generation, and the fourth channel’s third generation, as a truly independent competitor to ITV for commercial revenue, and to both BBC and ITV for viewing share.

By 1993, Sky and the other satellite broadcasters were also coming much more into the market for both viewers and revenue, with Cable having well over a million subscribers and Direct To Home (DTH) satellite now reaching around 2 million subscribers, but Channel 4 and S4C had the prime terrestrial distribution, which gave them the advantage over a channel such as Sky One, which had started in 1982 as Satellite Television, but had only been distributed via cable and satellite, which people had to buy into if they wanted to watch the extra channels.

Television moved into the digital era in 1998 and both S4C and Channel 4 entered their next generation. For S4C, it was breaking away from Channel 4, to become a channel in their own right, although S4C on analogue does still relay Channel 4 programmes.

However, on digital TV, S4C started to broadcast a welsh-language only service from Midday to Midnight generally, using programmes in their own back catalogue and some fresh new digital-only commissions. Together with BBC Wales, they also launched a channel called S4C~2, which broadcast coverage from the Welsh Assembly.

Channel 4 expanded their broadcasting operations too, with the addition of a subscription channel, FilmFour, and later a general entertainment channel, E4. Channel 4 also became involved in a consortium called At The Races, which took over broadcast rights to UK horse racing meetings from Satellite Information Services (SIS). Channel 4 are also making plans for a Free-To-Air (FTA) service on digital TV under the name G4.

So what is the future for the fourth channel? Well now that Channel 4 also broadcasts in Wales, and S4C fulfils a strong remit with regard to Welsh language programming, it seems that the two companies of the fourth channel have a fairly bright future. However, it is no secret that some politicians would like to see Channel 4 privatised.

This would be a disastrous move, as Channel 4 still has a remit of its own to fulfil, and any move to make it a company with private shareholders would mean that Channel 4’s remit would end up going the same way as ITV’s public service remit has gone, straight out the window.

When ITV in England merges into one lumpen mass (inevitably), Channel 5 gets ITC’d to and loses its licence (everybody with taste will rejoice) and the BBC finally loses all sense of discretion after so many pointless tit-for-tat battles, Channel 4 may be the saving grace of television – no matter how many series of Big Brother there ends up being.

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