1 January 2002

David Hastings on a future for Channel Four

Channel 4 is unique in the world of British broadcasting in several respects. It is both a public service broadcaster, technically just like the BBC, owned by the Government – complete with public service remit – but unlike the BBC it obtains its income from advertising.

Until recently it was subsidised by the ITV franchisees, but was so successful in its own right it fought for, and won, the right sell its own airtime.

Channel 4’s terrestrial coverage serves nearly all of the populated regions of England and Scotland but not Wales, which has its own fourth terrestrial broadcaster in S4C.

Most of the main transmitters were equipped to broadcast Channel 4 from the first day of its launch as the UK’s UHF transmitter network was originally designed to provide four channels.

Channel 4 was the UK’s first national commercial broadcaster, though commercials are shown on a regional basis which is more attractive to advertisers.

Channel 4 set out to be different from day one; it had the widest variety of programming found on any network and mixing populist programming such as the quiz show “Countdown” with highly innovative programming such as “The Friday Alternative”.

The channel innovated in other ways with a long news bulletin at 7pm, but the most profound effect on UK broadcasting – eventually affecting the majority of programmes made for all of today’s television channels – involved not the programmes themselves but how they were commissioned.

This seismic shift that affected the entire world of UK broadcasting resulted by Channel 4 commissioning the bulk of its programming from independent production companies. Unusual and unfamiliar company names such as Alomo, Diverse and Illuminations produced programmes that were shown side-by-side with offerings from established ITV franchises such as Thames and Central.

Although independent production companies had been involved in both ITV and BBC productions for many years previously, the advent of Channel 4 meant a huge increase in the number of hours available for independently-produced programming.

This resulted in an entire ‘cottage industry’ devoted to relatively low budget productions – the longest established of these ‘indies’ were usually founded in 1981 or 1982.

The rise of the independents was also made possible by falling equipment costs. A studio could be equipped at a cost of millions of pounds, so anyone with a programming idea, venture capital and access to people who knew how to operate the equipment could make a television programme and have it seen by millions of viewers.

Suddenly television production now had a lower entrance cost and it was possible for minority groups to make programmes. The downside was that many of the experienced staff from the major broadcasters were lured into the independent sector by the prospect of greater editorial control.

All this independent activity influenced the way Channel 4 handled its presentation. Unlike ITV, the only idents that credited the programme’s producer were shown after the programme – for example there would not be a Thames skyline animation shown before a Thames-produced programme, just a simple caption saying something like “A Thames Television Production for Channel 4” shown afterwards.

Early Channel 4 presentation was simple, bold, distinctive and well liked – the ‘4’ logo with the flying coloured blocks on a black background quickly established itself as the hallmark of innovation. Critics were generally less impressed with the programming to begin with – it was nicknamed ‘Channel Bore’ or ‘Channel Snore’ – but were missing the point that Channel 4 wasn’t intended to be the same as BBC-1 or ITV.

Channel 4 – like BBC-2, had its ‘teething troubles’; there was an actor’s dispute that seriously affected what commercials could be shown for several weeks after the launch. Viewers either had commercials that featured cartoon characters and anonymous voiceovers or simply a ‘Coming Next’ caption displayed in order to fill the gap between programmes; thankfully the cross-subsidy by the ITV franchises guaranteed the survival of the network.

Early Channel 4 had in-vision presentation with an announcer sat in front of the camera, complete with aspidistra plant. As fashions changed, this form of presentation was restricted to just before closedown and was later axed altogether.

The number of programmes – like the commercials – were restricted to begin with and the “IBA:CH4” testcard was a familiar daytime sight. It was several years before Channel 4 had a full daytime schedule, when schools broadcasts moved from ITV to Channel 4 on Monday 14th September 1987.

Over the years, Channel 4 has evolved in different directions to cater for different tastes and has become more ‘mainstream’, especially when Jeremy Issacs – the original controller, who had previously worked at Granada, ABC, Rediffusion London, and Thames – was replaced by Michael Grade and later Michael Jackson.

By the early 1990s the channel had an almost complete 24-hour schedule, and the flying coloured blocks presentation gave way to the short-lived ‘circles’ of 1996. These in turn were supplanted by the current ‘block’ theme with vertical ‘blinds’ by Easter Monday 1999.

Channel 4 grasped the ‘digital revolution’ with the launch of additional channels, FilmFour in 1998 followed by E4 earlier this year. The programming on Channel 4 has changed too. At times during the 1990s it relied perhaps a little too heavily on US imports, but recently the balance has shifted towards more factual ‘entertainment’ such as Time Team, together with audience-pullers such as “Big Brother”.

Channel 4 may have lost its original cutting edge but the recent launch of additional channels means that the ‘original’ Channel 4 might eventually get back to what it can do so well when it wants to – innovation.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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