Part Four

Ian Jones takes on Channel 4

First published August 2001

I was given four wild cards to immediately respond to.

1. Richard Whiteley retires.

In which case Countdown would end immediately – there could surely be no justification to carry on a show which only really works thanks to its indefatigable host. Carol Vorderman would have to pursue employment elsewhere – something I’m sure she wouldn’t find much of a problem. I’d move Fifteen to One to 4.30pm, and install one of my afternoon programmes at 4pm; and in the long term consider launching a completely new quiz to fill the period when Fifteen to One was on its summer holiday.

2. Jon Snow goes to Sky.

I’d promote Krishnan Guru Murphy to the role of main presenter on C4 News. Elinor Goodman would host Hustings every day of the week. C4 would wish Jon well in his future career – there would be no malice.

3. Mersey TV cannot survive without Brookside and have to cease production of Hollyoaks.

I was kind of anticipating this. In the short term I’d promote As If as C4′s main “teen” soap opera and recommission it to run for longer, introducing new characters to help share the workload. Other gaps in the 6-7pm hour would be filled with a second weekly episode of Futurama, and to begin with repeats of other series from the archive – Teenage Health Freak for instance. I’d also see if C4 could negotiate for actors within Hollyoaks – those playing Max and OB principally – to possibly appear on the channel in another capacity, a drama series made by another production company.

4. Equity and musicians union go on strike.

I would try to leave cutting back Channel 4′s broadcasting hours as the very last resort. While continuing negotiations with the unions, C4 would continue to make use of its existing available programmes and personnel – which, given the majority of live output would perhaps not cause a huge deal of disruption to weekday daytimes. Gaps elsewhere would be filled with programmes from the archives – old episodes of Dispatches, Cutting Edge, and so on; and maybe the MU action wouldn’t impact upon C4′s music-based output given how that union doesn’t have quite as strong a presence amongst performers as it once had.

In response to the various criticisms of my schedules, and discovering how the other channels were shaping up, I made a few changes. Learning that BBC2 weren’t programming any children’s output before 8.30am I pencilled in some kids shows during The Morning After. One of these was Dappledown Farm, which I finally “bought” off Channel 5 in exchange for ex-Big Breakfast presenter Richard Bacon. I moved As If to 6.30pm, switching Palace Hill and File Under to 6pm.

There were a few issues I had to clear up with BBC2 – namely the use of Bob Mills to present The Project. In return for him being dropped, and also Robert Llewellyn being changed as host of Robot Wars Live, I “sold” BBC2 Late Night Poker, and agreed to remove Living with the Enemy from The Morning After. I tried to get The Weakest Link moved from 5.45pm – purely because it clashed with 4 At 5 – to an earlier slot, but this came to nothing. I also negotiated with ITV over the scheduling of its entertainment show The Strand – at present up directly against Retrospective – and got it moved onto Thursday nights. A traffic jam of drama on Thursday evenings between 9 and 10pm on BBC1, BBC2 and C4 was resolved without me having to move anything – but I subsequently agreed to shift Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights off Wednesdays to avoid clashing with Kay Mart on BBC1.

The comments I subsequently received from the regulators were, I thought, fair and justified. The Donna Air vehicle Hot Air would have to go. Some more recently-made kids programmes must be put on Sunday mornings. Maybe there could be more room found for minority sports. The religious elements within my schedule must be more clearly signposted. Above all, there were simply too many programmes about television – perhaps the notional Thursday night drama series In The Loop could be changed from being set in a TV production company to elsewhere. I was pleased, however, that the complaints made earlier about the number of “ex-NME” staff present were not reiterated.

I built all these recommendations into my final schedules – Fixture List was lengthened, Portfolio given a clearer billing, Hot Air replaced, Sunday mornings changed, the emphasis on programmes about TV scaled back. What I was left with I was surprised to find did not deviate too greatly from the kind of Channel 4 I’d first set out to create. The charges of nepotism still hurt a little, as I hadn’t intentionally set out to fashion a channel I knew would be the one those “six people round the table” found most appealing.

I was aware I’d indulged myself in the creation of many new formats rather than simply reorganising and redeploying existing formats; indeed I would guess that out of all channels my weekday daytime line-up was perhaps the one that deviated most from its present-day incarnation. In particular the amount of live television C4 was now obliged to deliver had increased dramatically. Nonetheless I felt I’d tackled most of the problems I’d identified at the start of this project. I’d tried to scale back the reliance on imports to hold up audience share; reposition the channel slightly so it was clearer in its role as a public service broadcaster; acknowledge its purpose to cater for minority, alternative audiences without creating “ghettos”; and develop new attitudes towards repeats, archives and arts programming. The end product was by no means perfect, but it was hopefully a more distinctive, more imaginative, Channel 4 that still matched commercial appeal with the need to innovate, provide an alternative and above all take risks.

<Part Three