Friday Night Every Night

Graham Kibble-White on E4

First published February 2001

“I see [E4] as a BBC2 to Channel 4′s BBC1, an opportunity to grow new things. We want to do it because we think we ought to be a multi-channel television operation.”
Michael Jackson, 20 December 1999

The launch of a new digital/satellite/cable channel is generally as potent an event as a new series of Chucklevision. Where were you when The Dating Channel first awkwardly launched onto the airwaves, coming at you from (presumably) an insurance brokers in Newcastle, bringing you the very best of press-ganged office juniors who “Like going to the cinema. Like going to the pub. Erm … like the cinema”?

E4 is a different matter; being the highest profile channel launch since Channel 5 in 1997. It was probably the channel’s acquisition of secured exclusive rights for three years to Friends and ER (for £124m) that – more than anything else – put it on the map. E4′s marketing head, Dan Brooks proclaimed in November 2000 that this was “the last big channel launch in this country”. And he was probably right. Bucking the trend for digital channels to be perceived as primarily a feeble sop from a broadcaster whose main concern is ensuring they have a finger in every pie, E4 has, since it was given the official go-ahead in October 1999, aroused a great deal of genuine expectation (“The BBC talks genre-based channels, C4 just does it” said David Cuff, Broadcast Director of Initiative Media). When Michael Jackson tartly commented “We don’t see any point launching channels for the sake of it, that’s known as the Carlton strategy” he was on the button. Unlike the BBC digital channels, for example, which seem an isolated offshoot from the core BBC “family”, E4 has been built as an integral part of the C4 empire. Programmes from the channel feedback into C4, and personnel work across both platforms (Kevin Lygo, E4′s controller of programming, remains C4′s entertainment “supremo”). Whether one was much of a fan of Friends or not, its acquisition denoted that E4 meant business. “Give people what they want” said Kevin Lygo. Here was a channel clearly defined (“Friday night every night”) and purposeful.

Before Christmas 2000, it was revealed that E4 would launch on Thursday 18 January 2001, with a line-up mirroring Sky One’s successful Thursday night schedule (which itself was copied from NBC in the US). In 2000 Sky had secured ratings of almost 3 million thanks to Friends, and it therefore reacted bullishly to the new channel. Here was the first instance of real competition within its own environment (BBC Choice limping along somewhat anaemically, with a relaunch as BBC3 apparently due later in 2001), and as a result the deal for Sky Digital to carry the new channel was only struck days before E4 went live (“now available on Sky Digital” crowed the C4 trailers, “Yes! Sky Digital!”). For E4, this was no real surprise with Gerry Bastable, head of Channel 4′s pay TV team, commenting in the latter half of 2000 that “Our experience with Film Four [launched in 1998] was that we ended up signing distribution deals with Sky and ONdigital a few days before launch.” The deal done, Sky still had one last spiteful kiss to deliver, and in the tradition of an Archers culling, it imported the controversial game show Temptation Island into its schedules as a last minute spoiler designed to lure away viewers from E4′s launch night.

In the event, both channels called victory in the next day’s post mortems. Using unofficial overnight figures, E4 claimed the top-rated programme of the night with 563,000 viewers watching Friends. Sky, however, crowed about 557,000 viewers for Temptation Island, beating the second-half of ER‘s season premiere. In fact, overall Sky One did fare better posting an average share of viewing of 5.1% in multi-channel homes, in comparison to E4′s 3.3%. We can, however, expect this to be the first of many face-offs. And with E4 having the advantage of a terrestrial channel to give it the occasional piggyback and an assured web presence, it will be interesting to see what other dirty deeds Sky One will pull in an effort to maintain its overall 4.3% of the multi-channel viewing share.

As it stands, E4 has quickly proven itself to be a welcome, credible edition to the schedules. Maybe you can’t say where you were when The Dating Channel took to the air, but when E4 started transmissions, I remember were I was. I was watching the telly.