Channel 4: An Overview

By Graham Kibble-White

First published April 2000

It was Paul Coia to begin with on 2 November 1982. Here was the first voice of Channel 4 to welcome us to the first new terrestrial British TV channel for almost 20 years – and a stoutly inconsequential game show, Countdown.

In a marked contrast to the Michael Grade years, wherein C4 was much criticised for broadcasting sexually explicit material (and coming to a head in ’95 when The Daily Mail infamously dubbed Grade as “pornographer-in-chief”) Channel 4 initially courted controversy for its rather staid raft of unimaginative but “worthwhile” programming (“Channel Snore” said the press) as it doggedly stuck to the remit laid down by the broadcasting act: “It should appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by [other channels], encourage innovation and experiment and be distinctive.”

At a witness seminar on Channel 4 held at the Institute of Historical Research on 8 June 1994, Edmund Dell (C4′s first chairman) delivered a paper that revisited the early years of the channel, and acted as something of a counterblast to the book Storm Over 4 by Jeremy Issacs (C4′s Chief Executive up to 1987). Addressing that rocky-period which initially met C4′s launch Dell recalled: “A Conservative MP told me that he did not agree with the criticism of Channel 4. A channel that was prepared to broadcast Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungs deserved praise not criticism. I hesitated. Could I afford to lose a single friend? I then confessed that the Ring was being broadcast not on Channel 4 but on BBC2.” He also admitted: “The welcome moment of relief from this mountain of criticism, at least some of it justified, came with the beginning of TV-am in February 1983. It appeared that TV-am was even worse than Channel 4. The tabloids switched their target. Channel 4 was left in relative peace.”

C4 gradually consolidated its strengths and began to carve out its own niche in the British televisual landscape. When Issacs left in 1987, Michael Grade was something of a surprise appointment as a successor, and there was a certain amount of irony in the fact that Grade’s ex-LWT colleague and eventual vanquisher at the BBC, John Birt, had previously unsuccessfully applied for this post, being turned down in favour of Issacs. Grade’s succession sprang from a transaction between him and Richard Attenborough who was attempting to get a documentary about apartheid placed on the BBC. Grade recalls: “I liked what I saw very much and agreed to buy the documentary … Wearing a different hat, Dickie as chairman of Channel 4 was also in the process of appointing a new chief executive to replace Jeremy Issacs … I wondered whether they had found a replacement for Jeremy and if I should tell Dickie I was on the brink of leaving the BBC.” Grade made the decision and called Attenborough; his pitch: “‘I don’t know whether this is of interest to you or not but I’ll say it twice so that there’s no misunderstanding. If you were to offer me the job, I would take it … Yes, if you were to offer me the job, I’d jump at it.’” Issacs was not happy with his successor and threatened in the press to “throttle” Grade if he wrecked the channel. Grade’s response: “I was shaken by the venom of some of the √©litist critics to my appointment but I had no intention of bowing down and worshipping Channel 4 as a cultural icon to appease them. I saw no reason to vandalise Channel 4′s schedules or to treat them as perfect and inviolate.”

Under Grade C4 went on to greater popular approval, with Issacs tartly commenting on the occasion of its 10th anniversary that the channel was “less hairy, less sloppy, perhaps a mite less adventurous.” In 1993 C4 started to sell its own advertising successfully (previously it was funded by a subscription from ITV companies) with no obvious detriment to its output. The following year it overtook BBC2 in terms of ratings. Ironically, again, when Grade announced his retirement in January 1997 he was to be eventually succeeded by Michael Jackson – formerly Controller of BBC2.

Jackson’s vision of Channel 4 is different from the need to serve minority interests that fuelled his predecessors. He has stated that “we are not a minority channel for minority audiences. If we continued doing that we’d end up filling the small gaps left by other channels.” There is to be no more of the token programming with which C4 once “bored”. On 5 July 1999 Jackson wrote for The Guardian on his future vision for the channel: “Our goal is to make the most of our remit, interpret it afresh for new audiences and a new televisual landscape. We want to make television that matters. We need to move into new ventures, so that the spirit of Channel 4 is as important in the future as it is today.” Significantly though, Jackson sees Channel 4 as more than just a channel, it is a media company, spawning the most successful pay-per-view launch of a new digital channel (Film Four), a web presence in which they will invest ¬£10 million this year and the proposed launch of E4 – a new digital entertainment-based channel. Already he has been criticised for a reliance on US programming (recently beating Sky in a bidding war for ER and Friends) and yet almost conversely tasked with the role of stopping the gradual decline in C4 viewers. On the latter point Jackson is pragmatic, predicating further falls in the viewing figures as the proliferation of new channels continues. Under Jackson, C4 seems to have an optimistic future. He has a definite vision that appears aligned to, and often a step ahead, of developments in British TV.

Jackson sites Queer as Folk as the apotheosis of Channel 4. That’s probably a good enough reason for us to feel confident of continued success under his tenure.

Channel 4 on March 2000

Channel 4 established: 2 November 1982

Chief Executive: Michael Jackson
Director of Programmes: Tim Gardam