Launch of a Revolution 

18 November 2007

IBA Channel 4 testcard

The past and present of Channel 4 on the 25th anniversary of its launch

The launch of Channel 4 at 4.45pm on 2 November 1982 (see above) was a landmark in the history of British broadcasting for several reasons: most notably being the fact that nearly all of Channel 4’s programmes were commissioned from independent production companies as opposed to in-house production or sourced from network franchises in the case of ITV.

Various ideas for a fourth TV channel had been proposed and postponed numerous times since the early 1960s when UHF frequencies for a fourth channel (initially envisaged to be ‘ITA2’/’ITV2’) started to become available. However the transition to colour television along with several economic and political distractions inhibited further progress until the late 1970s.

If the Labour Party had won the 1979 general election, the fourth television channel would have been a low budget OBA (Open Broadcasting Authority) community channel aimed at minority groups (typically a 2% maximum viewing share), which was a popular option with the public at the time, even though it would have had miniscule audience figures.

By contrast the initial Conservative Party proposal was to give the fourth channel to ITV, but ITV’s advertisers preferred an option of having a completely independent second commercial TV channel in order to give the existing ITV network some real competition in order to drive down the cost of advertising, though unsurprisingly ITV wasn’t exactly keen on that idea.

Therefore it was perhaps unsurprising that Channel 4 inevitably turned out to be a form of compromise when it finally appeared: namely a public service broadcaster with a strong public service remit to compete with the BBC but funded by commercials, though Channel 4’s advertising was initially sold and controlled by the regional ITV companies.

Although advertising was sold on a regional basis, Channel 4’s programmes would be transmitted nationally throughout the British Isles with the notable exception of Wales, which was given its own separate broadcaster (S4C) due to cultural and political concerns. S4C shows Channel 4 programmes alongside additional Welsh language programming.

Not having to justify the channel’s output to the marketing departments of advertisers gave Channel 4 the creative freedom to essentially do whatever it wanted, and to that end Channel 4’s first controller (Sir) Jeremy Isaacs devised a groundbreaking schedule that was full of programme ideas that wouldn’t normally be found on the traditional BBC and ITV channels.

The lead-up to the launch of Channel 4 was inevitably a hectic time for all those involved at the channel and for its independent producers. Mersey Television, for example, had barely finished producing the first episode of Brookside when it was transmitted on launch night, but the actual launch went smoothly as planned.

With Channel 4 there was no elaborate launch ceremony: the intention was to start with a typical evening schedule in order for the channel to be judged on its own merits as opposed to having an atypical selection of expensive mass-market programming that would give a false impression of what the channel was about.

Therefore, after a prerecorded launch announcement by Paul Coia (it was originally going to be live but they didn’t want to risk any mishaps) and a launch promotion, the first programme was shown – Countdown, which, together with Channel 4 News, are the only two programmes from the original launch evening that are still being produced 25 years later.

Despite the launch being carefully planned, the closedown at the end of the first evening was almost an afterthought; indeed a candle in the shape of a ‘4’ was pressed into service to mark the occasion. The evening had gone without mishap – although critical reaction to the first night’s offerings was rather mixed despite some highly promising programmes.

Unlike the modern philosophy of TV channels attempting to stop viewers switching to rival broadcasters, the intention behind Channel 4’s original schedule was to cater for a very wide cross section of society and it was fully expected that the channel’s audience would only watch selected programmes of interest.

Television programmes of mass appeal such as Brookside, Countdown and Treasure Hunt would sit side by side with the likes of Bandung File, The Body Show and programmes about quilt-making; this caused some of the popular press to initially nickname the channel “Channel Bore” or “Channel Snore” until more controversial and/or popular programmes were aired.

Although programmes were shown as planned, Channel 4 was initially hit by union trouble when it came to the commercials – for the first few weeks, commercials were in short supply which meant that some regions had interlude periods with “Follows shortly” captions and music, whilst other regions featured a small number of commercials repeated ad nauseum.

To begin with, Channel 4 only showed programmes from teatime to late at night each day, though by 1984 broadcast hours were extended to afternoons in order to cover horse racing. By 1987 schools programmes had moved from ITV to Channel 4 when Channel 4’s transmitter coverage was almost complete, and the channel was operating a 24 hour service by 1999.

Channel 4’s history can be roughly divided into three eras: the early years when Jeremy Isaacs was controller (1982-87); a period of gradual change when Michael Grade (now at ITV plc) was in charge between 1987 and 1998; and the latter period in when Channel 4 gained full independence from ITV which leads up to the present day.

The early years were highly experimental and innovative, although the natural result of such rampant experimentation were the inevitable failures (two notables being the infamous Minipops and Brazilian soap opera Isaura The Slave Girl) as well as the successes (The Tube, Treasure Hunt, etc.), but the sheer breadth and depth of programming on offer was remarkable.

It has to be said, however, that much of this so-called ‘wonderful’ programming was very much a product of its time as well as being produced under ‘Thatcherite’ conditions, namely non-union staff working for very little money and to tight deadlines; this has now become a common feature of much of the modern broadcasting industry.

Therefore we can conclude that the main driving force behind Channel 4’s innovation had less to do with independent producers but more to do with the attitude behind the commissioning as well as the freedom to take risks with minimal penalty.

And it wasn’t just the variety, but the attitude behind the scheduling that was also critical: for example, it’s interesting to note that the mid-80s ‘red triangle experiment’ – which used a red triangle symbol to indicate a programme with potentially objectionable content – was abandoned because it actually boosted ratings as an unintended consequence.

Under the controllership of Michael Grade, Channel 4 started to gain a populist edge, although it could still be controversial if it wanted to. Saturday Live/Friday Night Live established several upcoming comics who subsequently went on to become household names, such as Ben Elton, Harry Enfield, Paul Whitehouse, Paul Merton, Julian Clary and French and Saunders.

By the end of the 1980s a fair number of the less populist elements of the Channel 4 schedule (such as the aforementioned Bandung File) were starting to vanish from the schedules, and as Michael Grade steadily made his presence felt, Channel 4 continued to be controversial but the ratings factor began to increase in its significance.

Landmarks of controversy included the first showing of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian which was shown in the context of a censorship season, and the even more controversial Damned in the U.S.A. documentary about banned American art which caused a storm and a lawsuit over its very controversial art-related content.

Then there was the infamous Red Light Zone which promoted sex-themed programming. By 1995 the Daily Mail had given Michael Grade the title of “pornographer-in-chief”, and in a sense this had some justification since the titilation on display was arguably being used to boost ratings first and foremost, as opposed to any underlying artistic or intellectual merit.

Successful Channel 4 programming introduced throughout the 1990s included The Big Breakfast (replacing its first attempt at breakfast television – the worthy but initially disjointed Channel 4 Daily); TFI Friday; Brass Eye and Location Location Location which made their debuts before the end of the decade. The channel also moved into its current Horseferry Road building.

Great successes for Channel 4 during its existence included cinema box office hits for films produced by and for the channel, such as My Beautiful Launderette, Company of Wolves and Four Weddings and a Funeral, although its film division has been subsequently scaled down in the absence of recent notable successes in this area.

When Michael Jackson replaced Grade as controller of Channel 4 in 1998, this signified the start of the third era for the channel. Digital television launched in the same year, which was in turn to accelerate the shift towards multichannel television that later gained further importance with the planned eventual analogue TV transmitter switch off.

The launch of ‘arthouse’ film channel FilmFour in November proved to be the final nail in the coffin for any remaining highbrow content on Channel 4, despite reassurances that arthouse films would continue to be shown on Channel 4. With ratings now being a significant factor it was clear that such promises were in danger of being broken – and they were.

Channel 4 stopped promoting ITV programmes on January 1 1999 and the umbilical cord was finally cut; Channel 4 was now totally separate from ITV. There were safeguards to prevent it from floundering (potentially making use of ITV’s profits) but these were never used – Channel 4 had successfully become a commercial entity with a public service remit.

Fast forward to the present day, and today’s Channel 4 bears little resemblance to its early output. It now relies heavily on a small number of so-called ‘reality’ TV formats such as Big Brother, Location Location Location (plus numerous ‘property porn’ spinoffs) and Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares which have largely been cloned by other channels if they aren’t clones themselves.

Much of Channel 4’s output is spread over additional channels (E4, More4, Film4) in accordance with modern trends in the broadcasting industry, along with the recently introduced 4oD video-on-demand service backed up with a comprehensive website and podcasts, etc., which are all prerequisites for any serious modern broadcaster.

But what lies in store for the future of Channel 4? Current controller Andy Duncan, along with Channel 4’s management headed by Luke Johnson, knows that the channel has to get away from relying too heavily on the likes of Big Brother, Wife Swap and numerous reality TV clones that have become an overburdening feature of the channel in recent years.

Without additional established programmes intended to eventually replace successful but slowly ailing formats, Channel 4 is starting to find itself in exactly the same position as ITV plc – albeit at a slightly later stage – and it remains to be seen whether Channel 4 can now commission itself out of the same hole that nearly swallowed (and still threatens) ITV.

Channel 4 has prospered in recent years against a declining ITV, but now that ITV plc is staging a fight back (ironically lead by ex-C4 controller Michael Grade) and with advertising revenues continuing to decline, Channel 4 is rapidly heading towards a crossroads in its existence, where it needs to reinvent itself as a matter of urgency.

For one thing, Channel 4 is now up against much fiercer competition both from numerous other channels and from other media sources – Google’s UK advertising revenue recently surpassed the entire advertising income of ITV plc, which gives you some idea of the immense changes that have taken place during the last ten years.

Clearly it can be seen that Channel 4’s commercial standing, since taking control of its own advertising, has been detrimental to the channel’s original philosophy, and recent mis-steps have been predominantly the result of a desire to generate revenue at the expense of programme integrity and quality, though to be fair a similar attitude had been endemic throughout the industry.

Indeed it was Channel 4’s Richard and Judy “You Say We Pay” phone scandal that triggered several major related investigations into the whole issue of premium rate phone scams, and this in conjunction with the Celebrity Big Brother Shilpa Shetty race row will make Channel 4’s 25th anniversary year something that the channel may not wish to remember.

On the bright side, Channel 4 is about to expand into broadcast radio via a recently-won national commercial DAB multiplex, and it has lofty ambitions to challenge BBC Radio 4 in terms of both ratings and setting the political agenda, though this will be a very tall order given the relatively miniscule budget that Channel 4 Radio will have to operate with.

But what Channel 4 really needs to ensure its future success is financial stability, and if it is to remain a viable public service broadcaster it really needs an alternative source of funding beyond commercials and sponsorship, although converting Channel 4 into a public trust (as with The Scott Trust which publishes The Guardian newspaper) could also be useful.

Top-slicing the licence fee would be ineffectual as well as further harming the BBC, so another approach is really needed to support Channel 4. It will be ironic that in order to preserve Margaret Thatcher’s “child” some decidedly non-capitalist intervention is required to prevent Channel 4 from going bankrupt or becoming a totally private entity.

Channel 4’s legacy on the broadcasting industry has been profound: it introduced a culture of small UK independent production companies outside of areas such as cinema and children’s television that were also made possible by new technology, and this in turn has subsequently shaped the whole of the modern UK broadcasting industry.

It may be true that small companies theoretically have the freedom to produce whatever they want, but most of these companies now work under ridiculously tight budgets and to near-impossible deadlines courtesy of their paymasters, and some allegedly employ overworked and inexperienced staff using minimal wages in order to maximise their profits.

To gain wide exposure, independent producers have to have ideas that broadcasters want in the first place, which in a high pressure commercial environment tends to be the sort of thing that’s tried and tested in terms of popularity since risks can be highly dangerous in the current climate. Plus the production has to be done for pennies and delivered yesterday.

And when Channel 4 now spends over 50% of its programming budget on productions from one company – namely Endemol – this in turn makes a mockery of the premise that commercial broadcasters stimulate the wider independent production market.

The ‘glory days’ of independent production could be well and truly over, but some of the smaller producers could still survive if they serve niche markets. Having said that, commercial children’s television is also under threat from so-called ‘junk food’ advertising controls, so the number of available niche markets is shrinking at the same time.

It’s not hard to conclude that if independent production companies are to become more effective and reliable, Channel 4 and other broadcasters need to be more aware of their responsibilities in relation to how they treat the independents that they make use of as well as being bold and imaginative in their commissioning decisions.

Hence the importance of an alternative source of funding combined with a strong remit if Channel 4 is to become more innovative, secure and stable as well as passing on this stability to the smaller companies that it commissions from.

You Say

1 response to this article

Joanne Gray 11 October 2015 at 5:09 pm

Interesting to learn about the “Follows Shortly” captions during the ad breaks in the channel’s early months were dependent on regional advertising. I grew up in the Tyne Tees region and watched Channel Four a lot in the beginning; I’d always naturally assumed that because it was a national broadcaster, the adverts (or lack of them) would also be a national logistic.

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