Fourgone conclusion 

1 January 2002

Andrew Bowden on how C4 lost its way

“It 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 experiment and to have a distinctive character of its own.” The definition of Channel 4 on the ITC website perhaps not the best use of the English language, but its meaning is clear.

Since its launch in 1982, Channel 4 has aimed to just that. It shook up the schedules by firmly scheduling comedy against News at Ten on a Friday night.

Its breakfast programme is aimed firmly at an age range uninterested in the antics of Lorraine Kelly on GMTV, kids programmes or hardcore news. It’s the channel that brought us The Word, Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, and the pioneering Network 7.

It’s not been adverse to being popular, as its scheduling of Friends and Frasier on a Friday night have shown, but even then, the original scheduling of those programmes was providing something different to the evening news bulletin on its commercial rival. But that was then, this is now. On the innovation stakes, is the Channel 4 of today even making an effort?

One of the channels biggest hits in recent times has been Big Brother. Whether that show is particularly innovative in itself is a long and complex argument – it could go either way.

Channel 4 launching the show in the UK could be argued as being innovative, but the fact it plucked a successful foreign format and passed it off as its own provides the counter argument. It’s a far cry from Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush, a Channel 4 programme which was sold across the globe, Chris Evans’s gags and all.

One of its biggest successes of recent years was The 1900s House, a reality-TV programme where a family lived as closely to Victorian life as possible, when you’re living in modern-day Greenwich.

Quite a novel idea in many ways but its rapid follow-ups, in a matter of months, of the 1940s House, the Edwardian Country House and now Frontier House, seems to suggest that someone can’t think of any new ideas. If it was one series a year, it could work, but a new series every three months just seems to reek desperation.

And then there is Enterprise. The latest product of the Star Trek factory, the corporation was offered the free to air rights by Sky, who presumably thought they could get more money from the channel, than it could from offering it to previous Star Trek rights owners, the BBC.

The sci-fi fan optimist may at this point have thought that Channel 4 may even decide to take some risks with its scheduling of its new import, which has boosted the slightly tired Star Trek franchise dramatically since its launch.

Maybe a 10pm slot, which would be ideal for the programme, could be in the offing, aiming it squarely at the adult sci-fi fan (of which there are many). Such a move would easily have been bold and innovative.

Such a bold move was not to be, but even sci-fi cynics, pointing to Channel 4’s appalling treatment of Angel and Babylon 5 (which even saw Babylon 5 being scheduled in a kids slot during the Christmas holidays), may have been surprised by the timeslot it was given. In its infinite wisdom, Channel 4 decided to schedule it at 6pm on Wednesdays.

A tea-time slot itself isn’t much of a surprise, but the decision to schedule it on the same night as Star Trek: The Next Generation is being shown over on BBC Two, and schedule it so that the two programmes overlap by fifteen minutes, just seems to show that Channel 4 have lost the plot. There’s nothing particularly experimental about that kind of scheduling.

Which leads us on our final case – The Simpsons.

The rights for the popular US cartoon were up for bids, and Channel 5 was firmly in the running. Initially Channel 4 wasn’t even bidding for the programme, but with the fear that Channel 5 may attempt to use the programme to take a lead on the early evening ratings, it fought back and purchased the rights for a whopping £700,000 per episode.

Whether Channel 5 would have scheduled the programme in the early evening, we’ll never know. Between 6 and 7pm, the fifth channel already runs two firm favourites of its schedule: Home and Away and Family Affairs.

Indeed, Channel 5 is not adverse to taking risks, and it’s easy to imagine it scheduling the Simpsons in a 8pm timeslot, like it is in America. As any Simpsons fan will tell you, it’s a programme with more jokes for the adults than for the kids. But that’s speculation, and we’ll never really know what Channel 5 would have done.

What seems pretty certain is that Channel 4 won’t be taking any risks. Its scheduling of Simpsons stablemate Futurama was set firmly at 6pm, but even the fact it paid so much for one show doesn’t inspire much confidence.

It’s hard to see Channel 4 starting off its Friday night comedy strand with a dose of Bart, Lisa, Marge, Homer and Maggie at 9pm. They seem to have firmly set out their stall with the scheduling of Enterprise.

Even its entertainment channel E4 seems to struggle to fit into the remit. Whilst bringing new programmes like Banzai to the screen, most of the time it seems to rely on old favourites like Friends and ER – the pay TV rights having been poached at big money prices from Sky One. Indeed sometimes it’s hard to tell Sky One and E4 apart. Distinctive character? Well…

The problem is, the more Channel 4 strays from its remit, the more the channel stokes the fires lit by those who claim it should be privatised. One of the biggest proponents are the Conservative Party, and whilst they’re not in government just now, it’s not inconceivable that they might be one day.

When Channel 4 did once stick closely to its raison-d’être, it was much easier to support it in its anti-privatisation stance. Experimental, innovative, distinctive programming could have been at stake. But when Channel 4 starts sticking to ridged commercial formulas, many prescribed by other people, then it gets a lot harder to support it.

For when Channel 4 starts blindly following the competition, then you have to wonder what the point is of it being there at all.

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