Part One

Ian Jones takes on Channel 4

First published August 2001

When the news broke that Michael Jackson was quitting his job as boss of Channel 4, newspaper profiles the following morning all trotted out the familiar anecdote of how, as a boy, Jackson had liked nothing more than cutting up copies of Radio Times and rearranging the schedules to his liking. As Jackson was preparing to go public with his decision to leave, I found myself busy cutting up his existing Channel 4 schedule and trying to rearrange it to my own liking.

There’s no point denying that I was happy to have drawn Channel 4 for this project. It was the channel I watched the most, and for longest; a channel I’d grown up with that had continually surprised and amused me. Over the four years of Jackson’s tenure as Chief Executive my interest hadn’t waned, though of the three people to have run C4 since its creation, compared to Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Grade Jackson had certainly been the one to have least impact on its identity. I’d always considered Jackson’s famous childhood pastime with fond regard – not least as I’d spent many an hour preoccupied with exactly the same mission. So I was pleased to get the chance to bring out the scissors and glue once more and take C4 to task.

In my view the channel at present entertained a number of weaknesses, one of which was an acute over-reliance on imports. While the station had always deployed a selection of American programming, it felt that more recently the saturation of airtime with US fodder had climbed to a new level. Moreover, too many of these imports were erratically scheduled (The West Wing, bumped back from its initial time of 10pm further into the night) or simply bland, insipid fare (Sex and the City). Was there a solution, perhaps, whereby the preponderance for Americana was lessened but the station could still maximise audience potential on selected imports?

This issue raised another factor which needed persistent acknowledgement throughout this task: to ensure C4 remained a commercially viable proposition, balancing whatever experimentation and innovation I desired with a guarantee of delivering viewers to please advertisers. It was simply not viable to return the station to its early days when primetime was filled with purposefully niche output. That was back when Channel 4 wasn’t self-funding, and didn’t have to pay so much attention to sales revenues and economic trends. To maintain the station’s average audience share (around 10%) I had to pay constant attention to ensuring schedules didn’t stand open to the charge of driving audiences away. Axing US imports had to be justified on commercial, not just creative grounds.

But the more I reflected on present-day Channel 4, the greater was my feeling that at times it seemed it was almost drifting along, rather aimlessly chasing the middle ground and becoming lazy in its interpretation of its remit. The station is still charged with pioneering alternative, minority programming – but output of the Eurotrash/Ibiza Uncovered variety seemed a highly unimaginative, unexciting interpretation of this. I wondered whether it was possible to reposition the channel to better realise its responsibility towards “alternative” audiences without returning it to its rather earnest, relentless 1980s incarnation. I also wanted to avoid repeating Channel 4′s crude “ghettoising” of audiences. This had been evident particularly in the early 1990s, where programmes concerned with different ethnicity, sexuality and faith were flagged up as such in the schedules and signposted as if that programme was only to be watched by this or that respective social group and nobody else.

I wanted to wean the channel off its tendency to use overnights as a dumping ground for niche programming – why assume that people watching television during the night, by choice or design, should only be offered up resolutely non-mainstream fare? I also felt that for too long the station had exercised a very offhand attitude towards repeats. Flinging out episodes of Friends whenever there was a half hour gap in the schedules had led to some weeks when the show was on as many as five times. I tried to develop a more constructive policy towards repeats: acknowledging that a certain amount of repetition was inevitable given the need to fill a whole 24 hours every day, while adopting a more imaginative attitude towards utilising C4s existing back catalogue of programmes as well.

There were plenty of areas I was happy to leave alone. The bulk of C4′s weekday afternoon and early evening schedules warranted no interference as far as I was concerned; it would have been highly self-indulgent, for instance, to pointlessly tinker with either the times or the formats of Countdown and Fifteen to One, or Channel Four News. But major changes were demanded of me elsewhere. I had to accommodate the newly-signed Richard and Judy with a daily weekday programme. I’d already decided not to award the breakfast contract to The Big Breakfast – so an entirely new, but viable, early morning programme had to be concocted. A daily racing magazine had to be slotted in, thanks to Channel 4′s recently renegotiated coverage deal.

I also wanted to improve C4′s arts coverage. I felt that over the last couple of years the number of programmes concerned with any kind of music, drama, film and performance had dropped to a woeful low. I was concerned to overhaul drama output, and in particular the station’s reliance on Mersey Television for its two soap operas. I wanted a strong Friday night line-up that didn’t rely too much on imports, while making sure that when C4 did offer up pure entertainment it was of a stimulating, exciting and original kind, fun in its own right and also obviously different to that of other channels.

Although not charged with addressing the matter of E4, I found that as I began drawing up my schedules I was deliberately reinstating programmes that would otherwise have aired first on C4′s digital cousin. Eventually it became obvious I was recasting E4 away from its dubious status as home for all of C4′s big imports and hundreds of repeats and towards – in the short term at least – the status of a more daring and radical channel. Its schedules would be freed up of first-run US series to make way for genuinely new comedy and drama formats, which would then “graduate” onto Channel 4 itself. Certainly until the take-up of digital television resumes a steady climb, the case could be made for seriously re-evaluating E4′s purpose and its dual identity as both Channel 4′s benefactor and retainer.

So it was with keen interest and concern I took on the daunting task of reshaping Channel 4, to leave it in a somehow “better” condition than how I found it. The fact that “better” could mean one of dozens of differing, contradictory, qualities was to become evident all too quickly. Who, for example, was I subconsciously scheduling for – myself? A fictional ideal Channel 4 audience? Or simply to please a group of mates?