File on Four 

1 January 2002

We asked the EMC Writers’ Forum what Channel Four and S4C had done for each of them personally. Surprisingly, this subject wasn’t as emotive as the popular press would have us believe. But the Forum was certain that, whether for good or ill, the fourth channels had had a major effect.

Andrew Bowden, Meta Editor of EMC Newdesk, was most interested in S4C. “As everyone who has met me knows, I am not Welsh. However I do wonder what the people of Wales actually wanted as a whole. Did the masses want a Welsh-language station or would they have preferred Channel 4 proper?

“I believe the increase in use of the Welsh language has been helped by S4C, so it has obviously done some good, but given the time again, would the masses have wanted S4C? Was it just foisted upon them by people who felt that Wales should have this channel?”

Satirist Andrew Hesford-Booth had no answer to his namesake’s question. “S4C started from a unique remit to bring all the Welsh programming together, and succeeded, but there is a school of thought that this didn’t really work from the audience’s point of view, and wherever possible they would rather watch C4. I don’t know for certain.” James Pittman was also unsure of the answer.

“An alternative approach,” he wrote, “would have been to spread the Welsh programming across all four channels – i.e. have a lot more Welsh content on BBC-1 and BBC-2 and require HTV to continue broadcasting in Welsh on ITV itself.

“Then, instead of having S4C, Channel 4 could broadcast ordinary schedules for the most part, but with Welsh opt-outs for certain programmes. However, not living in Wales or having seen any S4C, I am not really in a place to say which the best option is or whether they did the right thing. I suppose it depends on what your first language is, really.”

Transdiffusion Staff Editor Jase Robertson took the presentation enthusiasts’ approach. “S4C gave us some good presentation! From the clever use of the last letter of WALES and the first of CYMRU to give us WALES4CYMRU to the more recent dragons, and even some in-vision continuity, I think most ident-watchers would give S4C the thumbs up.”

Illustrator Steve Heap felt that the measure of the channel was the programming. “Of course, when S4C started they didn’t show programmes for anything like 24 hours a day. There was enough airtime available for S4C to show as much, if not more, Welsh language programming than HTV and the BBC together had done before (22 hours per week in total), plus the whole of C4’s output.

“I don’t know to what extent non-Welsh-speaking viewers in Wales opted for C4 if they could get it, but I can think of a couple of reasons for them to have done so. For one thing, S4C didn’t show all of C4’s output – “50 hours each week, including all the best from the UK fourth channel”, as their promo preview put it.

“Probably more significantly though, the Welsh output mostly occupied the primetime hours, as it does today – the time-shifting of C4 programmes on S4C would tend to put them in less convenient slots and a VCR was rather more of a luxury 20 years ago. I suspect that S4C’s presentation wasn’t a deciding factor – although I thought it was smart! I also suspect C4 News didn’t have much to do with it either: although S4C only had the news in Welsh (also at 7pm), C4 News wasn’t much of a success initially (I read that it even achieved a zero rating on one occasion).”

Steve then mentioned a specific – and surprisingly apparently forgotten – dual-language gem from S4C. “I’ve just been reminded by the tape I’m listening to that S4C also had some programmes made in Welsh and English, thus explaining how not all the English output was from C4. “Superted” is one example, with each story being given a Welsh narration and an English one.

“A more remarkable example was “Newydd Bob Nos” (which I think means “News Every Night”), a sitcom about a TV news channel (years before Drop the Dead Donkey, though not satirical). As far as I can remember, this was not merely dubbed from one language to the other. Each show was recorded twice, with the channel and the programme being called “Night Beat News” in English. The channel’s logo was simply “NBN” on a chequered background – clever, eh!”

Channel Four from London then drew the attention of the Forum. Ian Beaumont, Meta Editor of EMC Bitstream, was critical of the channel and its modern offspring. “For a start, Channel 4 have made a lot of programming decisions that I didn’t agree with. The main one was the replacing of the Channel 4 Daily, which used to get around half a million viewers, which wasn’t bad, with The Big Breakfast, which, whilst getting over a million, and being justifiable as alternative against competition such as BBC and GMTV, was unquestionably an attempt to go the populist route in programming.

“FilmFour made great strides in British Cinema, but the recent closure of the distribution arm has put a dent in things. The satellite film channel, though, seems stronger and better programmed than many others, with 2 themed channels and a timeshift channel in support. Overall, FilmFour could recover, it just needs some time and a few more unexpected successes.

“A lot of people have said great things about E4, but it really doesn’t seem to be as good as others are making out. It certainly could be a great channel for Channel 4, but it seems to have made a lot of noise about itself whilst doing very little to put itself on the digital map. E4’s aim was to make its channel compulsory viewing and so far it hasn’t really made itself anything like that at all.

“Overall, I’d say Channel 4 got off to a great start and has seemingly gone downhill, even though it has a remit, which unfortunately it hasn’t really been living up to. It needs to get itself back on track, before it ends up making a mockery of its former glories.”

Andrew Hesford-Booth agrees. “When it started, C4 was offering something new for everyone to some extent. It was a rare treat to have a fourth channel especially when video ownership was relatively lower than it is now, and audiences were greater and less fragmented. Compare that to the situation where there are now many more channels, DTT, video, DVD, and 24-hour TV. Channel 4 no longer looks unique because the approach it took – providing a mixture of popular programming and leavening it with arcane material – has been done many more times, and better in some cases.

“Evolution of programming styles and content is inevitable and technology has moved on from 1982, so C4 had to change. Not all of C4 is “golden age” stuff either. “Unforgettable” was cheesy, “Password” was a cheap game show, and “Norman Gunston” wasn’t that good!

“These days, however, there is an element of losing base with the viewers. “Brookside” is something I don’t watch (I hate soaps) but many do. Now there are plans to axe it. “Right to Reply” I regarded as more confrontational than “Points Of View” and it should have been kept. “Without Walls” was a great documentary strand, and was allowed to go.

“All the things that made C4 different are disappearing, and it seems to be competing with, but not complementing, ITV-1’s schedule.”

Staff Editor David Hastings agreed that the channel was desperately failing. “Channel 4 – for roughly its first ten or so years – was far more different, varied and challenging than it is today and quite simply there had never been anything else like it either past or present.

“Watching Channel 4 today is quite simply an intense disappointment for those with memories of it prior to 1991; no matter how good some of the mainstream programmes are, that doesn’t at all make up for what has been lost because Channel 4 has/had lost the will to innovate. And anyone who thinks that today’s Channel 4 is innovative doesn’t know the true meaning of the word ‘innovation’ or simply hasn’t seen any better. Mark Thompson – the new controller – promises to be more innovative but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens on that front.

“And whilst it is arguable that it is impossible to be just as innovative today because “all the good ideas have been tried”, then it is equally arguable that nowadays the channel hasn’t even tried to be at least slightly different. For example, I’m disappointed that Channel 4 had bid so much money for The Simpsons since such a programme is more suited to a general commercial network like – gasp – ITV, or its modern day equivalent (Channel) Five.

“Channel 4 shouldn’t be investing huge amounts of money on relatively tried and tested programming; it is a broadcaster with a public service remit (at times very hard to believe) unlike Five, ITV or Sky, and therefore it shouldn’t be involved in bidding wars. The BBC has learnt its lesson the hard way, but Channel 4 seemed determined to carry on like a true commercial broadcaster.”

Andrew Bowden expressed mixed feelings about the channel. “I feel like Channel 4 should have done a lot for me given its remit. But all it seems to have done to attract me is provide mass-market entertainment programmes. Yes, it introduced American comedy to prime time Friday night television – and where would I be without Fraiser – and its commitment to British comedy has seen programmes like Black Books, Spaced and Father Ted.

“Yes, it brought me The Word, Right to Reply and The Big Breakfast and more, but in recent years its all gone rather lacklustre. Big Brother, constant Graham Norton. Formulaic programming shoved down the throats of a mass-market audience. Where is the concept of being different? Standing out from the crowd? What’s good about RI:SE? What’s good about Channel 4’s use of imports – bar perhaps Friends and Will and confounded Grace?

“The only thing I cannot and will not even attempt to fault Channel 4 on is news. Channel 4 News is one of the finest news programmes on terrestrial television, and the channel is the only terrestrial channel to bring viewers a full, in-depth 30-minute news bulletin on Saturdays and Sundays. Jon Snow regularly works weekends. How many other news services feel like an integrated, seven day a week service? Well C4News isn’t quite, but it’s close.

“But would I miss C4 if it went away? Judging by its current performance, probably not.”

EMC Behind the Screens Meta Editor David Brockman found himself agreeing with Andrew. “Channel 4 was I think much more innovative when it first started. Its period under Jeremy Isaacs was perhaps more robust. Film on was highly innovative – Walter, My Beautiful Launderette, My Left Foot etc. Channel 4 News has been consistently good.

“It had experimental discussion like After Dark, and did original comedies such as Desmond’s, and the comedy Drop The Dead Donkey. Its T4 brand provides an alternative to CBBC and CITV, whilst some of its documentaries, like The Dying Rooms, were ground breaking.

“Four repeated some good ex-ITV programmes, like The Avengers and The World at War in the early days, programmes that Isaacs had been associated with in previous TV management incarnations.

“But in more recent times it has been somewhat lacklustre. It was a mistake to extend Brookside to yet more weekly editions, and now relies heavily Big Brother formats – though I accept to some extent this has been good in concept and audience terms.

“But where are the lovely foreign films that adorned its schedules, films made in Mali, Burkina Faso and Cote D’Ivore for example, full of drama, colour, imagination and multicultural variety? It pioneered comment after the Channel 4 news as an alternative to Party Political broadcasts, but what has happened to these of late?

“Its political programmes like A Week in Politics and the channel’s own look at television itself in Right to Reply were all key supports to its schedule. They seem to have gone.

“I never watched its US comedy imports, but Friends and Cheers have proved popular. As TV channels have diversified and increased, C4’s response to the digital age was to create the FilmFour and E4 subscription channels. A few years ago it could have been said that Channel 4’s Film on Four was the hub of the UK’s film industry, widely looked up to, but alas this seems no more. UK filmmaking seems essentially to have gone back to being the artistic and technical base for the US companies, and Channel 4’s contribution to UK produced film has diminished in my view.

“Channel Four needs some rethinking and reinventing and should be brought back on track as the truly alternative channel that it was originally set out to be.”

But perhaps the last word belongs to Joe Baldwin, who feels nostalgia for a time that has only recently past. “I will always remember being about 5, just starting at school, and getting up at about 5am and watching the 4Tel pages and the Big Breakfast title sequence.

“Channel 4 has come a long way since the presentation it had when I first became aware of it. It’s “squares” look ranks right up there with Carlton’s current look as the best on TV right now, and they certainly know how to work a presentation department.

“The news is the best in the country, and the breadth of programming is astounding. Yes, they are becoming more populist, but that makes the programmes more varied. You can quite easily sit and watch a gameshow, then a home improvement programme, then a documentary, then a comedy, then a film. Something for everyone.

“And I personally think they were right to take The Simpsons. They deserve it. If they get The Simpsons, that’s more money for them, which due to their status they will pump back into programming.

“Let me just say this: Channel Four beats every other terrestrial channel in every area. Presentation, news, programming – every single way.”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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