The Fourth Channel at 25 

18 November 2007

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Ian Beaumont looks back at a quarter century of Channel 4 and S4/C.

I am just about old enough to remember life before Channel 4 and S4C came on air. It was a different era then; in some ways better, in others not. The launch of a new channel back then was a truly major event, rather than the almost non-event it seems to be today.

The arrival of S4C and Channel 4 back in 1982 was major, and Channel 4 launched with a whole day’s worth of programmes, on November 2nd 1982, from 4.45pm onwards. Rather than launch with a short schedule of the best, they put out their full day’s schedule, to show that they had great programmes across the board and the schedule. Launching on that first day, was Countdown, Channel 4 News and Brookside, a soap opera that lasted until 2003.

S4C took a programme from BBC Cymru that had been a staple of the BBC’s schedule in Wales. Pobol y Cym has been a continuing staple of S4C’s schedule ever since. And whilst ITN has produced Channel 4 News for the entire length of the channel, BBC Wales has produced Newyydion on S4C for the entire length of time S4C has been in existence.

Channel 4 was, throughout the first 10 years of its existence, basically ITV2. It partnered ITV on various sports events, especially Athletics, despite having a stable of its own sports, including American Football, British Basketball and Volleyball. Before 1993, Channel 4’s news output was basically considered to be part of the same ITN operation that provided ITN news bulletins on ITV. Whilst Channel 4 News had its own reporters, they used many of the ITV News team too. The weekend news summaries on Channel 4, were hosted by the same newscaster who presented the bulletins on ITV. And in 1987, ITV Schools became ITV Schools on 4.

But already times were a-changing and Channel 4 was beginning to unshackle itself from its “ITV2” bonds. As early as 1990, The Word was the show that began defining the “new” Channel 4 that would be fully formed after September 1993. This would be a Channel 4 that was populist but edgy, always pushing boundaries. The Big Breakfast was another example of the populist, but alternative agenda.

It wasn’t until 2000 and the arrival of Big Brother that we saw the next phase of Channel 4 begin. This Channel 4 would be unashamedly populist, aiming to usurp ITV1 from its slot as the top commercial channel. This is a channel that seems to have forgotten that it had a remit at all, and has simply become just another competitor for viewers and advertisers. This Channel 4 brought Film 4 the television channel to digital screens, along with E4 and More 4. They also introduced a couple of failed experiments in Quiz Call and At The Races, both have since been sold to other broadcasters.

Meanwhile S4C, in the digital era, has become a specialist Welsh-language broadcaster, rather than what it was prior to digital, which was a broadcaster of English Channel 4 programmes mixed in with some Welsh language programming. S4C’s future seems to be that of a niche language broadcaster. S4C’s only other digital channel is a service that covers the Welsh Assembly when in session, and when the assembly is out of session, can provide coverage of major national events such as the Royal Welsh Show or the Eisteddfod.

As for the future of Channel 4 – well it’s difficult to tell. E4 and More 4 have been successes, whilst Quiz Call was sold at the beginning of the mistrust in quiz channels. And as for the main channel itself, how will it fare when analogue is turned off? Until that time, it has a fairly privileged position. After then, it will be just like all the other channels out there, struggling to hold onto the audience, fighting for every viewer. In many ways, it will finally be the death knell of the remit that Channel 4 had to provide alternative programming, as opposed to the current situation where the remit is basically dying a slow death of neglect.

Comparing Countdown and Channel 4 News of 1982, to the same programmes in 2007, is like looking at a different channel. Unquestionably, the next 25 years will see at least as many changes.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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