Channel Four as ITV2 

1 January 2002

James Pittman watches C4 develop

When Channel 4 entered our airwaves two decades ago it was something of an oddball. Along with its Welsh sister station, it was the nation’s second commercial service. With the exception of those lucky enough to live in an ITV ‘dual region’ for the first time commercial TV would have an alternative service that wasn’t from the BBC.

Channel 4, however, was strange. It was closely tied to ITV, using the network to sell its advertising. It sourced some of its programming from the companies that made up ITV.

And, for all intents and purposes, was an additional alternative service – an ITV2 in all but name, with the main objective to provide alternative and minority programming that there wasn’t time to air on the main network. In short, Channel 4 was an offshoot of ITV and not a commercial rival.

Two decades later and everything has changed. Channel 4 is independent in every way – advertising, production, scheduling and income now controlled at Horseferry Road.

C4’s only link is the wording in its charter, which requires it to provide programming that wouldn’t be shown on Channel 3 – now not even called that by the regulator that invented the term. Channel 4 does this, but it also finds time to compete with the major broadcaster. This leads to the question, is Channel 4 now a real rival to ITV?

Channel 4 could only dream of ITV1’s audience figures. C4 has never, in its short life, been able to escape its big brother’s shadow. Due to deliberate design C4 has in many ways been made unable to. In saying that, Channel 4 has a lot going for it as a rival.

Channel 4 brought the working concept of a publisher-broadcaster to the UK. Before this, with the exception of foreign imports and ITC productions, ITV produced its own programmes and aired its own programmes, as did the BBC.

Channel 4 didn’t have any studios, cameramen or production teams. It commissioned almost everything from elsewhere and still does to this day. This gives the service a huge amount of flexibility and diversity in where it gets its output.

Despite its rivals following suit to some extent, ITV still makes the majority of its programming in-house. We are therefore now in a situation where Channel 4 has programming from a greater number of broadcasters than ITV does, due to the various amalgamations and mergers that have bedevilled the older network.

As an alternative broadcaster, it is Channel 4’s duty to experiment and try new things and this has lead to a lot of success. ITV’s attitude is a lot more stagnant, it goes with formats that it knows works and will bring in the viewers but little beyond that.

Whilst ITV has slowly become more and more stale in its output, Channel 4 has lead the way in comedy at least, making names for the likes of Graham Norton, Mel and Sue, Davina McCall, Harry Hill and Adam and Joe – the list goes on.

Channel 4 brings us new formats of shows, it famously gave us the Top 100 series (though ITV’s production mechanism could easily be found by those looking at the programmes), and popular reality TV such as The 1900 House and its spin-offs. Channel 4’s contributions to the British film industry cannot be overlooked either.

Channel 4 experiments in bringing strange formats from abroad have also been of interest. Before the multitude of US-dominated cable and satellite channels, it was Channel 4 which discovered the best US talent and gave what they found primetime slots.

All the major US live-action comedy of the past two decades, Roseanne, Cheers, The Golden Girls, and more latterly Friends, Frasier and Sex and the City have all appeared on Channel 4, whilst the BBC or ITV didn’t want to touch it. It was this format that made even Sky, ITV’s other commercial rival furiously jealous of Channel 4.

If you compare this to ITV’s approach you’ll find very little in the way of successful imports. ITV’s best grabs are the likes of the quite funny Dharma and Greg and Veronica’s Closet, which have been given pathetic slots in the late night or early hours of the morning because the older UK network knows not what to do with the series or found that the blander Friends-clone it expected was sharper than the planned audience profile.

It is not just the US where Channel 4 finds good stuff. It cannot be denied that one of Channel 4’s biggest successes in recent times was its discovery and adaptation of the Dutch reality show ‘Big Brother’.

If anything put the channel on the map in recent years, it was that house and that format. Channel 4 had managed to do what ITV had wanted to do for years – launch a popular show that got the public and the press alike glued to their sets for weeks.

The media sensation around all three series of Big Brother was enormous, grabbing the attention of the tabloids and taking over the discussion on shows such as Graham Norton and even Chris Moyles over on BBC radio.

Channel 4 successfully pulled off what ITV1 should have done and made it a success. Big Brother isn’t really a documentary, nor alternative output, but – in hindsight – is something ITV1 would bite the producers’ hands off to show.

Channel 4 placed a bet on something new and won overwhelmingly. As a result, it did ITV’s job for it, and bettered what the (now) 47-year-old channel could ever manage.

We now have a situation where Channel 4 is doing what ITV is doing plus much more. It is providing popular, fresh entertainment, and bringing new names and formats in every day.

It has an up and coming soap opera in Hollyoaks and still manages to provide some of the best-produced news and documentaries in the commercial sector. In its news the channel has a diversity only seen otherwise on the BBC, with RI:SE in the morning and the Channel 4 news at seven pm.

Where ITV1 news has become stagnant and trashy, Channel 4 news, still made by the same company – the venerable ITN – as ITV’s offering, has remained informative, intelligent and not dumbed down, something ITV1 news can’t boast and often now applied to BBC bulletins too.

Our so-called flagship commercial channel’s main news programme is now a disgrace (at 18:30 or 22:00 or whenever it lands today) and a shadow of its former self. Thankfully the once very respectable producer of ITV’s news, ITN, can earn back some of its respect once a day on Channel 4.

With ITV dying thanks to stagnant and boring schedules, poor treatment by its troubled and bickering owners and a lack of stability or real talent in its upper, middle and even lower management, an ever more entertainment-orientated Channel 4 is fitting into its shoes. We can expect to see Channel 4 getting more popular as ITV1 gets less and less so.

The one argument that remains is a stark one. Despite its success in popular mainstream entertainment, should Channel 4 really be competing against ITV1? Does it not have an alternative remit?

Whilst it still fulfils this original remit for the most part, shouldn’t it be going further and not wasting valuable airtime and production money on light entertainment that might be better than what’s on the other side – but should actually be on the other side?

That’s an argument that is up for debate. On one hand, we need the old style Channel 4 in the commercial world – there is a job that needs to be done and somebody needs to do it. Channel 4 are the people who were given that job so why aren’t they doing it?

On the other hand, Channel 4 is providing quality mainstream entertainment where its competitors often are not.

Should a good thing like that really be stopped? Plus, good entertainment in the mainstream often comes from the alternative experimental broadcasters who are willing to take show business, and financial, risks. This is certainly true of Channel 4, so perhaps it should be the ITV1 of the future. Perhaps it has the right balance between alternative and mainstream.

Only time will tell what becomes of the last ‘alternative’ UK terrestrial broadcaster. In the mean time, I am staying tuned to what is now my favourite commercial channel.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 16 June 2016 at 11:10 pm

When Channel 4 was in its infancy, I was impressed by the number of vintage US & British TV series that was on the fledgling channel during its first few years. Series like The Dick Van Dyke Show, I Love Lucy, Thriller, Shane, The Avengers, The Addams Family, The Munsters, The Abbott & Costello Show, Wagon Train, Lone Ranger, The Human Jungle, Danger Man, etc. After that period, classic TV shows just disappeared.

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