Big Thursday

Ian Jones and Graham Kibble-White on E4 – one year on

First published February 2002

12 months on from its launch, and E4′s once more busy strafing urgent and striking promotional copy across ad land. The new series of Friends and ER are receiving their British debut, and the channel is giving both the hard sell. Just as it did this time last year, E4 is unashamedly seeking to publicise and validate itself entirely off the back of a couple of imports – albeit ones that demonstrably pull in a million or so viewers. And as it was on the station’s opening night, so it was again on the occasion of E4′s first anniversary.

Yet if there’s the semblance of continuity, it’s one that masks the somewhat erratic and expedient way the channel has evolved since its launch on Thursday 18 January 2001. To explore some of the upheavals and controversies of E4 ‘s first year, OTT spent another day in the channel’s company. Rather than pick the direct anniversary of E4′s birth we opted for a day-to-day comparison rather than date-to-date, and chose the nearest Thursday to the channel’s birthday: 17 January 2002.

OTT’s verdict on E4′s opening gambit last year had been that its “programme makers have a passionate desire to position themselves at the forefront of the early 21st century British television agenda.” That this assumption subsequently appeared to be rather dramatically proved wrong was in part to do with the way we were encouraged to misread the channel’s potential as a showcase for innovative entertainment. But E4′s largely unsatisfactory first year arguably rested upon more fundamental factors; namely, a continuing and palpable ambiguity over who and what the channel was for; the exact nature of its relationship with Channel 4; and its efforts to successfully configure a positive and constructive role to play in digital multi-channel broadcasting of the future.

The very first programme on E4 on 17 January 2002 seemed to reflect both these and other related issues. As part of the deal that secured the terrestrial premiere of Enterprise, Channel 4 was bundled – perhaps unwillingly – the rights to the original 1960s Star Trek. As such the day’s line-up kicked off at 2pm in decidedly unspectacular fashion: in the company of Messrs. Kirk, Spock and Bones. Star Trek has an undeniable reputation in the canon of historic TV sci-fi, but it’s also a show that was repeated to death by BBC2 during the last decade, and consequently feels (not just looks) shabby and ill-worn. More importantly, there’s nothing in the series that obviously connects with E4′s notional remit, nor its supposed ethos. Worse, the same episode cropped up again four hours later.

Repeats of two shows that first aired on Channel 4 followed: The Priory, and Dicing With Debt. When E4 began, its afternoon and early evening schedules were grouped together in one strand and dubbed T4 to tie-in with C4′s popular Sunday morning brand. In-vision presenters provided smooth and effective continuity, and there was an obvious coherence to the output. But this has since been completely done away with. Now the channel’s ostensibly youth-orientated programming is linked off-screen and the T4 brand has disappeared. In fact there seems little attempt to promote this particular sequence of broadcasts as representing anything at all. There’s certainly no sense to the way they are ordered, each programme seeming to target a different audience. So The Priory‘s feel good twentysomething vibe was followed by the brazenly cheap and downmarket Dicing With Debt, complete with hard-up students answering questions on topics including daytime TV. The unintended irony of seeing obnoxious host Paul Tonkinson having to ask a question about his erstwhile employer The Big Breakfast was really the only fun to be had here.

Then at 4.30pm came another shift in emphasis, with the docusoap Posh Rock. This was the first of only three programmes out of the day’s entire schedule that were new to E4; indeed, the logo “E4 Original” sat top left of the screen throughout to ram the point home. Of course, in a way there was nothing actually original about the programme at all. It merely comprised a rehash of all the conventions and preconceptions of trashy fly on the wall telly, and delivered nothing new at the end of it. Attention kept switching from one anonymous bunch of characters to another; there was little pace or structure; and not even the more extreme tallyho behaviour of the eponymous seaside resort’s residents could really generate interest. The bloke on voice-over duties, Steve Merchant, seemed pissed off as well. Not a pleasant half hour.

Posh Rock was followed by the second new show: Fanorama. This cheery panel game filmed in front of an absent studio audience was the most diverting programme E4 had shown so far, and the first to display any kind of energy or excitement. Claudia Winkleman, trying hard to be a kind of ironic, quasi-Shooting Stars hostess, quizzed two teams of devoted fans on their specialist subjects and random general knowledge. It was an unassuming show that traded off its contestants’ freakish obsessive natures, but was sadly ruined by the behaviour of its two regular team captains. David Mitchell and Rhys Thomas’ contrived hijacking of the show was simply smug and self-indulgent. Still, at least the fans represented two interesting subjects – Five, and Hollyoaks – and there was even a question about Movin’ On.

But at 5.30pm it was back to imports and repeats. Any audience E4 picked up with Fanorama would certainly have switched over once The Drew Carey Show started. There’s little that’s less appealing than watching the star of a sitcom, little known in Britain, and who doubles as executive producer, use his show purely as a look-at-me exercise in self-promotion (Drew sings! He delivers punchlines! He plays an accordion!) There was also a tasteless joke about Dudley Moore that should have been edited out. Then came the Star Trek repeat; followed at 7pm by an old episode of Ally McBeal, which dovetailed into a repeat showing of C4′s Hollyoaks from earlier on in the evening. Admittedly the nature of the teen-soap’s appearance was an improvement on E4′s schedules of last year, where a repeat of the previous day’s episode immediately preceded the start of a new episode over on C4. But the overall sequencing here remained perplexing, with each programme so blatantly different in its apparent target viewer as to make you wonder if the channel was deliberately trying to diffuse the momentum into its “Big Thursday”.

Of course, this ex-T4 slot has boasted some impressive output over the last year: specifically the consistently enjoyable and entertaining drama As If. This has already made it through two series, the second of which is currently being repeated on Channel 4. In its distinctive visual style, breaking of the “fourth wall” and knowing characterisations, As If stood head and shoulders above all of E4′s youth output. So it’s a shame the second series was aired in batches of three episodes a week, and not allowed to impact on the channel for longer.

There was another uncomfortable segue following Hollyoaks into a repeat run of Trigger Happy TV. When OTT last looked in on E4 we noted this series felt slightly out of place on this channel, and those sentiments remain. Trading in an almost morose brand of comedy, Trigger Happy TV sat uneasily here, particularly juxtaposed with a teen soap notionally aimed at 16-24 year olds but with a fanbase of much younger viewers.

Since hitting the air at 2pm E4 had – with dull repetition – trumpeted its “Big Thursday”. Specially filmed trailers recreating a US sitcom attempted to crank up the anticipation for a section of the schedule so heavily branded that it almost stood separate from the channel as an entity in its own right. Indeed, various onscreen idents that continually flashed up legends like “9.30pm” seemed to be conspiring to distract attention away from, and in the process demean, current output in favour of something far more important later on. Considering how “Big Thursday” actually equated to a mere two programmes, the lavish treatment afforded this concept seemed to reflect badly on E4′s programming en masse. It resembled an admission that Friends and ER (the two programmes in question) were really the only things worth watching here. In this way the fact that both were imports only further belittled the rest of E4′s stock, “home grown” (an epithet the channel’s long since ditched) or otherwise.

But there’s very little worth saying about Friends and ER. The former has risen above the slightly disparaging remarks we meted out to it last year, whilst ER continues to be by far the most engaging medical drama on television. Both episodes tonight were solid, and testament to something US television does genuinely seem to have over British TV – consistency. E4 irritatingly flashed “brand new” across the top left-hand side of the screen throughout both. Significantly, the channel then extracts a further pound of flesh by repeating both programmes on Sundays, in another heavily branded strand: “Second Chance Sunday”.

E4′s over-reliance on its big-hitters seems to have been a continuing trend throughout its first year. Its blanket coverage of Big Brother last summer was generally considered a success, despite the understandable but often-erratic policy of muting most of its audio output before 6pm. However in that instance, and now during “Big Thursday”, the channel seems unable to capitalise on the influx of viewers these event-programmes bring in. After the Big Brother coverage finished there seemed to be little reason to stick with the channel. Nothing was marketed as a possible replacement. Similarly, once our “Big Thursday” programmes finished, the viewer was presented with a natural juncture at which to switch off E4. No reason was given to stick around.

Certainly the rest of the evening was lacklustre in the extreme. The episode of Hollywood Vice was as seedy and charmless as the title suggests – a tired and exploitative programme to fill this 10.30pm slot. It was followed by the third and final “new” show of the day, the revived mid-’90s series Passengers. Still trading in its reportage of youth cultural events in Europe, it reinforced an impression of this whole 10.30pm to 11.30pm slot as being earmarked for the channel’s overtly “pubbing ‘n’ clubbing” material. On launch night the voyeuristic Generation E fulfilled the same role (another E4 original long since gone); while later in the year came ex-Big Brother contestant Melanie Hill hosting the bizarre dating programme Chained. This boasted people with various but complimentary sexual preferences being chained together in the hope that at the end of the week two of them would shag on camera. Mel’s wooden presentation (“So – how do you feel?” she would ask every single evicted contestant each night) only reminded the viewer that here, again, voyeurism was the watchword. A second series is promised.

A repeat of the C4/Network TEN drama The Secret Life of Us effectively drew a line under E4′s programming for the night. Beyond this point the channel simply repeated various programmes from the day: ER, Trigger Happy TV, Hollywood Vice, Passengers and Ally McBeal. Though unoriginal, this is a useful – for those up during these hours – strategy to see E4 through until dawn.

Overall, the channel currently feels as though it’s entered a “second release” stage. The breaker-bumps have changed font, whilst the array of inventive animated E4 idents have been superseded by a static and rather tacky giant “4″ that sits motionless on the screen. 12 months in the channel is realistically looking at more failures than successes – but then that’s probably a fair assessment of any broadcaster’s year. There has been the sense from time to time of E4 trying to innovate: TV Go Home being a particular example. While the channel has been responsible for one genuine “home-grown” hit – Banzai – for the most part E4 somehow just doesn’t seem to follow through on its intentions (TV Go Home again) and continually falls between the two stools of innovation and realisation (Show Me the Funny). It managed to show all six reedited episodes of Brass Eye before its parent channel, and allowed the second series of The West Wing to air at a decent and regular hour. But increasingly E4′s patented spin-off “extra” editions of shows like Shipwrecked have been repeated on Channel 4 within the same week; while perhaps surprisingly there are no “updates” being run to complement C4′s new “interactive” game show Eden. The channel’s also started showing films on Saturday nights; isn’t that what companion digital service Film Four is supposed to do?

Notionally, we all know what E4 is actually for: it’s a youth equivalent to C4. It’s the parent channel without the “boring bits”. It’s the bastion of edgy and progressive programming. This, however, is actually testament to the successful branding of the channel. Spend an evening in its company and you’ll be left confused. Its two biggest programmes are US mainstream monoliths. It schedules in a regular evening slot for the tacky and exploitative. It even runs Hollyoaks in primetime! It will be interesting to see how new head of programmes Murray Boland, himself a sometime youth TV host and producer, will impact upon the channel. Meantime, as an idea, E4 is still great; but as a reality it’s all too easy to switch off.