The art of scheduling 

1 January 2002 tbs.pm/1770

Pete Davis on how to make a channel ‘alternative’

The art of scheduling is basically encapsulated by saying that Programme A will go out at 7:30, followed by Programme B. A good scheduler – if one can be found these days on general entertainment channels – will usually group programmes of a similar topic, or ones that would interest a similar group of people together.

This is meant to ensure that people will continue to watch the channel rather than swapping over to MTV to watch Kylie videos.

Across the multitude of channels, there are many different scheduling techniques. One of the basic ones is to show the same programme at the same time each weekday.

This is favoured for daytime schedules on most terrestrial channels and in the lower reaches of primetime on satellite stations. Some satellite stations – Paramount Comedy springs to mind – take the policy to its logical extreme by scheduling the same programme at the same time every weekday during primetime.

Another method – especially if a channel aspires to being ‘grown-up’ – is to show a series of programmes in a group, for instance the Monday night comedy strand on BBC TWO, or the sci-fi programmes on Mondays on Sky One.

Channel 4 have a fairly normal schedule for a terrestrial general entertainment channel, with mixed programmes during primetime, and the same programmes at the same time during the daytimes.

Programmes are sometimes scheduled intelligently, with items about a similar theme shown together, a fairly simple trick to get people to stay watching the same channel. However, this sort of thing isn’t taken to the extreme of dedicating one night to a topic every week.

The main thing that makes the Channel 4’s primetime different is the news, which is at 7pm on weekdays and takes up most of an hour.

This means that the channel takes advantage of the gap between 6pm and 7pm created by news being on both BBC ONE and ITV1 by showing programmes aimed at teens and sci-fi addicts.

This isn’t very revolutionary anymore, with BBC TWO and ‘five’ both showing ‘light’ programmes as an alternative to the news at this time.

But the timeslot doesn’t lend itself to some of the shows that have been shown in it either, particularly Angel, now residing late on Saturday night after the controllers were awoken to the content of the programme not fitting the poor timeslot they had allowed for it.

Schools programmes usually dominate Channel 4’s morning programmes in term time. Here is another occasion where Channel 4’s schedulers have had to think fast. In the past, large gaps were required between the programmes so children could get in and out of the TV room in a school.

But in the age of VHS, the prolonged gaps are no longer needed, and the only nod to the old traditions is a countdown as part of the ident – included more as an indication that it’s time to press ‘Play’ than a warning of the start of the next item. If there are no schools programmes, racing sponsored by the channel’s attheraces.com website or cricket fill the gap.

Like BBC TWO, Channel 4 once had theme nights, where a set of programmes on a single topic are shown. Channel 4 never used the technique as much as BBC TWO, and don’t seem to use it at all anymore.

Channel 4 do continue to use themed seasons, usually during the summer, where a larger number of shows on a topic are shown over several weeks. This is a fairly unique idea, and one that the channel has used for years, to greater or lesser effect. The “Banned” season of films drew huge audiences, yet the “Women Call The Shots” season – featuring several films in common – faired only modestly.

Channel 4 do use “threads”, where programmes of a common type are linked together with special presentation. The most obvious ones are T4, a thread for teens at weekends, which is mostly American imports and loud presenters, and 4Music, a selection of music programmes late night on Wednesdays, mostly focusing on ‘alternative’ genres.

T4 is now used instead of the defunct Bigger Breakfast during school holidays as well, providing Hollyoaks and Dawson’s Creek for any teenagers up at 10am. They also used to have 4Later, which seemed to be weird programmes for insomniacs, the nature of which frankly defies definition.

But perhaps the main difference these days between Channel 4’s schedules and its “mainstream” rivals is the channel’s use of themes, with more threads and themed seasons that its rivals could ever schedule, let alone conceive.

Whilst much of Channel 4’s output today is unrecognisable compared to 20 years ago, the themed seasons still exist and the specific threads are better defined than any other terrestrial broadcaster could ever manage.

Channel 4, with its themes and thread set the stage for the modern digital general entertainment channels and their avowed use of these devises.

C4 also, therefore, pioneered the next stage of television that digital has brought us – entire channels that consist of one thread or theme.

However, other than bring a glimpse of the targeted-channel world offered by the larger digital platforms, Channel Four doesn’t really do anything revolutionary any more, and will probably stay fairly tame in order to compete with the newcomers it, accidentally, created.

Your comment

Enter it below