The Authority’s Plans for Channel Four 

2 November 2022


Television & Radio 1982 cover

From Television & Radio 1982

The enactment of the Broadcasting Bill in November 1980 marked the end of almost two decades of debate and uncertainty about the use of the fourth television channel.

In 1962, after the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting had reported, the Government stated that there would be scope at a later stage for a second service under the Authority. No immediate action was taken, and in 1966 the Government decided that there should be no allocation of frequencies for a fourth television service for at least the next three years.

In 1970, the Authority gave fresh consideration to the form which a second IBA [at that point, still the Independent Television Authority – Ed] television service might take. After the companies, the unions, and many who worked in ITV had given their views, the Authority put forward proposals to the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications. The document, ITV2, argued that there was a strong case for a second Independent Television service; that it should be complementary to, and not competitive with, ITV; that it would provide greater opportunities for production companies both within and outside ITV; that its introduction would call for greater involvement by the Authority in programme planning; and that there were substantial reasons for an early decision being taken.

The main object of proposing a complementary service was to widen the range of programmes that could be shown to the viewer. A self-supporting single service will always find it difficult regularly to screen programmes which it is known will attract a relatively small proportion of the total audience. With two services which are not competing against each other, a service can more often cater for small audiences in peak periods on one channel while the audience for the programme on the other channel is not substantially affected. Complementary services provide an inherent, rather than an imposed, reason for scheduling programmes in a way that serves viewers best.

The Authority saw a second television service offering programming opportunities in a large number of fields. The suggestions put forward included, for example, the treatment in greater depth of current affairs, and of the arts and sciences; programmes of vicarious travel, with special reference to Europe; a wider range of educational programmes; extended coverage of sport and a variety of leisure pursuits; planned repeats between the two channels of the best television programmes; further outlets for regional companies; some form of television equivalent of a newspaper’s correspondence column; productions by independent programme-makers; and programmes of an experimental nature whether from independent producers or from the ITV contractors.

A man works on architect plans

Preparing the building plans to incorporate Channel Four transmitters into existing sites

Those were the Authority’s proposals for a second television service in 1971. The Government of the day decided that it would accept another proposal made by the Authority to increase the range of programmes available, by removing restrictions on broadcasting hours; but that the use of the Fourth Channel must be a matter for further debate. Views were still being sought in 1974 when the Government changed. The new Labour administration included the question among those to be considered by the Annan Committee on the Future of Broadcasting. That Committee in its Report in 1977 accepted the Authority’s contention that a fourth television service should meet different needs, but proposed that the service should be provided by a separate authority – the Open Broadcasting Authority. That proposal was never put into effect, and after the General Election in 1979 the Queen’s Speech in May announced the new Government’s intention that the service should be provided by the IBA. Later that summer, in a speech to the Royal Television Society, the Home Secretary confirmed certain important features of the service – above all, that it should complement the existing ITV service and not increase rivalry for ratings.

In November 1979 the Authority published its own suggestions for the new service and for the way in which it should be provided. The suggestions included a proposal for a subsidiary company, wholly owned by the IBA, which would acquire the programme material for the service from a variety of sources – from ITV contractors and from independent producers. The budget for the company would be determined by the Authority, and the money would be raised from the ITV contractors roughly in the same proportions as the rentals they pay to the Authority. The contractors would sell the advertising time on the new channel individually in their own regions.

The November 1979 statement emphasised the Authority’s intention that the channel should have its own distinctive character. It would complement the ITV service, and would so far as possible provide a choice of programmes appealing to different interests. This complementarity would not only extend the range of programmes available but would allow greater freedom in the scheduling of programmes on both services, especially in peak time, than was practicable on a single channel.

The Authority saw the channel as providing opportunities for a wide range of programme supply, and expected a significant proportion to come from independent producers. The overriding concern would be the quality of programmes: there would be no quotas or rights to contribute. There would be a place for programmes likely to draw very large audiences, both to establish the channel with the public and to allow producers to present their works within a popular context and not as a fringe activity.



The Authority did not prescribe particular categories of programme except in three areas. One was news/information, where ITN was expected to make a regular contribution. The second was education, which the Authority indicated should constitute about 15 percent of the output, and include provision for fresh educational needs. The third was religion, with the requirement that at least an hour a week of programmes should be recognisably religious in aim.

The Authority’s proposals for the structure and content of the Fourth Channel were reflected in the terms of the Broadcasting Bill, published in February 1980, and enacted in November that year. During the course of the Bill’s passage through Parliament, the only major changes in relation to the Fourth Channel concerned the arrangements for the service to be provided in Wales. There had of course been much thinking and development of ideas during the 1970s; but, apart from the failure to achieve a start during that decade, the provisions of the Act reflected closely in spirit the aims that the Authority set out some nine years earlier. The service will not depend upon competitive advertising, and the Authority will similarly seek to ensure that the programming itself complements that of ITV and adds significantly to viewers’ choice.


Channel Four Television starting 2nd November


The new service is due to come on the air in November 1982. It will have the advantage of a ‘big bang’ start, with coverage of more than 80% of the population of the UK at the outset, steadily increasing to equal the coverage for ITV. During 1980 and 1981 much work has been going on in preparation for a successful launch. In mid-1980 the Authority appointed a panel of eleven consultants, chaired by the Rt Hon Edmund Dell, with Sir Richard Attenborough as deputy chairman, to assist in the planning of the channel. On the enactment of the Broadcasting Bill the consultants became Directors of the Channel Four Television Company, the subsidiary of the Authority which has been set up under the terms of the Broadcasting Act, with direct responsibility for planning and assembling the new service.

The consultants were selected by the Authority to be broadly representative of a wide range of interests, and to include people who could speak on behalf of potential suppliers of programmes or who had a special concern for aspects of the channel’s output, such as education.

Jeremy Issacs

Jeremy Issacs, Chief Executive

The consultants’ prime initial task was the selection of senior executive staff. Mr Jeremy Isaacs was appointed Chief Executive with effect from 1st January 1981, and later in 1981 Mr Justin Dukes took up the post of Deputy Chief Executive and Managing Director. Both were appointed by the Authority to be members of the Company’s Board. Other senior appointments were those of Mr Paul Bonner, as Channel Controller, who deputises for Mr Isaacs on programming matters, and Mr Ellis Griffiths as Chief Engineer. 1981 has seen the company acquiring premises of its own and the nucleus of the staff it requires, and intensive work has been under way on the planning and preparation, and the commissioning and acquisition of programmes, for the November 1982 start.

Channel Four makes a new departure in British broadcasting structures. It is advertising-financed but is not solely dependant on the income it generates for itself. The IBA has overall responsibility for the channel, but the subsidiary – the Channel Four Television Company – has the task of providing the programme service and, like an ITV company, is independent in its entrepreneurial role. The Channel is part of the Independent Broadcasting system, but has a particular role to play in providing new opportunities for programme-makers and for viewers. The introduction of the new service will be one of the significant milestones in the history of British Broadcasting.



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