Above and beyond 

1 January 2002 tbs.pm/1772

It’s been a rather good past year for a certain channel. It has gained the rights to what may possibly be the most popular television show in Britain, if not the world.

It has one of the runners-up for most popular show in Britain (when it starts up again in May). It has been praised for the quality of its presentation many times and runs the most attention grabbing, thought provoking and entertaining programmes on British television.

It is what the BBC wants to be and what ITV1 wishes it wanted to be. Let’s not even go to the trouble of comparing it with Channel 5. It can be threatened by the ITC, yet never. It can easily give Sky a run for its money. Yes, you guessed it – welcome home Channel Four.

It seems ironic. A ‘Radio Times’ poll in December counted Channel 4’s audience share at around 11% -in the terrestrial race it only beats Channel 5. But it wins plaudits for what it does, not what audience it gets. As the ITC says:

[C4] has a statutory duty to provide information, education and entertainment; to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by Channel 3 (ITV); to encourage innovation and experimentation and to have a distinctive character of its own. A wide range of programmes must be provided, and minimum amounts [are] allocated for news, current affairs, schools programmes and other programmes of an educational nature.

And it complies with gusto. It is this remit that gives Channel 4 the chance to screen new comedy talent before anybody else. ITV is very cautious (and look where that got us: ‘Married… With Children’ was quite happy in America without Russ Abbott, thanks), but Channel 4 loves comedy – any comedy.

Any films, any documentaries, any piece of decent television detritus that hasn’t been touched by ITV’s media buying division. And it’s this diversity that allows it to experiment. Take ‘Body Story’ – Auntie Beeb probably wouldn’t – not least because they don’t have a penny to throw around at CGI graphics outside things involving animals.

ITV wouldn’t take it, as generally their idea of a documentary is any programme ending in “…from Hell”. Channel 5’s idea of a documentary is even worse than ITV can manage, if that is possible.

But C4 trots off and comes back grasping a handful of awards for its documentaries. The Beeb grits its teeth, ITV tries to do gritty but ends up with Pop Idol and Channel 5 just carries on doing Channel 5 type things.

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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