Four what it’s worth 

1 January 2002

Accusing Channel Four of killing quality television is a bold assertion. Channel Four is, of course, the last bastion of an old notion – that public service television and commercial television were not the antithesis of each other but actually compatible.

However, the decline in quality of ITV programming can be traced to C4’s birth in 1982. Robbed of the drive and ambition present since 1955 that commercial television could be as good as or even better than the BBC by the loss of its minority programming, ITV began to slide towards populism.

The main drive of this was not necessarily the new remit in ITV brought about by C4, but something altogether subtler. Before Channel 4, ITV felt a duty to produce hard-hitting, quality programming designed to educate, inform and entertain. This was lead by a breed of producers, directors and managers instilled with an ethos in public service television.

The invention of Channel 4 was partially designed to shake up the industry. Quality television did have a place; it should be protected. However, that should not stand in the way of the most important duty of all British companies – making money.

The ITV companies embraced the notion of unfettered moneymaking. The old-school producers of quality television could see the writing on the wall. ITV would, for the first time in its life, be interested in money first, quality second. And the men and women who made ITV what it was were offered a chance to escape.

Channel 4 commissioned programmes from outside contractors. These ‘independents’ did not exist in huge numbers in 1982. However, within a few years there were hundreds. The change was not at C4 – it was at ITV. The new independents were not newcomers. They were refugees from the parent channel.

Quality producers, writers, directors and managers saw where they could keep the notion of television as an art form alive without the worshipers of Mammon staring over their shoulders. They began to strike out en masse, setting up new, daring companies with bold ideas for programming, which they produced for Four.

Those left behind at ITV were the ones who had always felt they were ‘making television’ rather than leaving something for posterity. They may have heard of public service television. They may even have produced public service programmes. But they were never convinced by the arguments for public service or quality.

They were not making art. They were making money.

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