Part Two

Ian Jones takes on Channel 4

First published August 2001

I began with weekday evenings. Keeping Channel Four News at 7pm I decided on filling the 8-9pm hour with, if possible, two half-hour programmes of a mostly factual/current affairs nature. This was to contrast with the presumably more drama/entertainment based offerings on BBC1 and ITV at the same time – but also compete directly with any similar output on BBC2. I considered carefully those areas I thought underrepresented on C4 at present – the arts, media, Europe, a proper ethical/religious strand – or those badly served, such as fashion (She’s Gotta Have It – too flippant) and architecture (Grand Designs - too long).

The result was a collection of new shows and new presenters: on Monday, Europe Express and Three Dimensions (with Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian’s excellent design writer, as host); and on Tuesday, a refined fashion/lifestyle format, keeping She’s Gotta … host Jayne Middlemiss, plus Upload – the first computer magazine show for all ages for over a decade. On Wednesdays I put my new TV show On Screen, which I thought justified a whole hour as again there was nothing like it on television at the moment; and on Thursdays a look at press and publishing a la What the Papers Say, plus that new ethical/religious discussion show. All I envisaged as being accessible, lively offerings, in no way pitched at an obvious minority – no Black on Black “ghettoising”, hopefully. On Friday at 8pm I thought a lively, cultural-based historical documentary would work excellently up against rival channels, and provide an unusual but distinctive lead up to the more-entertainment based output post 9pm.

My relative freedom to create new programmes for this hour lay partly in my decision to ditch Brookside. My reasoning was clear: it was a format which had long past its best, but had also had numerous chances to renew itself, and failed. It was now doing the channel a disservice by in the short term becoming yet more entrenched in a rut, in the long term perhaps losing the station more money than could be made making savings on new programmes. The cost of keeping it on the air for, say, another six months to sort itself out could be set against the savings that would be made if it were to be immediately axed; also, I just didn’t feel like the show warranted its place on Channel 4 anymore. Whatever purpose it had when it first started, or 10, even five years ago, it seemed irrelevant now – other than for guaranteeing a certain audience at a set time on set days of the week. It was a risk, and losses in ad revenue would have to be offset elsewhere (never mind losses in audience as disaffected Brookside fans switched off in protest). But I thought it was worth it, and a challenge of sorts – for I now had to create other drama slots, plus consider how Mersey Television might react.

At 9pm I wanted to stick with established brands and formats. Dispatches or Cutting Edge would still run on Mondays; Secret History likewise on a Tuesday. I was determined to make The West Wing a hit – so I brought it forward to 9pm on Wednesdays, convinced it could win the audience it deserved, and began with the second series, currently only on E4. I created one of my new drama slots on Thursday at 9pm, where long-running 10 or 12 part series could play out. On Fridays I brought back a format cruelly dropped after two series (though admittedly the second run was appalling). Wanted, the action/reality game show made for a fine Friday evening big hitter, proper appointment television, and coupled with the likely condition of most members of the public out on the streets at that hour, a potent mix. I made Dermot O’Leary host, a figure well up to the task of live television, and deserving of a major primetime vehicle. Also, I decided Dermot would appear at various points throughout the daytime on C4 to publicise the evening’s show, building the tension and hopefully a potential audience.

Rounding off weekday evenings I went for more strong entertainment-based shows, mixing quality drama and quirky more unpredictable programmes. At 10pm on Monday I ran my other drama strand, this time a site for shorter, more glossy dramas. On Tuesdays at 10pm I put the new series of The Sopranos; on Wednesday a second series of Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, followed by a rare rerun of the old ITV sitcom Whoops Apocalypse; on Thursday a Paul Morley vehicle, then a new music strand; on Friday Friends and Takeover TV.

To refashion overnight output I concocted two new shows, both airing twice a week. Retrospective was my attempt at a TV version of Mark Radcliffe’s old late-night Radio 1 programme, mixed with The Late Show and influences of many C4 review/discussion strands. Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie were the obvious hosts – I’d wanted to use them, back together, somewhere in my schedules. I then threw in a couple of their old writing mates, plus some cult icons (Richard Stilgoe, Janet Ellis). The shows would be introduced as live, with C&M as anchors rather than performers. Stylus, however, was to be a more magazine based affair – here was where your reports on goths, body-piercing and hip-hop would be found.

I also revived The Eleventh Hour – an open forum, as before, for new work of a film, drama and investigative-kind. A new slot for minority sports would run on Tuesdays – Fixture List – while rare archive comedy would run on Thursdays (for instance, Dave Allen’s 1967 ITV show) plus documentaries from around the world. The File Under (FU) music strand would segue into a series of music-based films also on Thursdays. FU would mix performances with proper reports on the record industry and artists on tour. For Fridays I revived As It Happens – a format still fresh and with potential – and a new version of Late Licence called Nightride, with celebrity hosts making constructive uses of both the C4 and ITV archive. The rest of the nights were to be filled with films, sport, educational programming and what I dubbed 4 Replay – another use of the archives which I considered more imaginative than at present, and a way of creating something of genuine interest for people tuned to the telly in the small hours.

Daytimes during the week posed an immediate problem – what to put in the place of The Big Breakfast? I first considered what Channel 4 should not do: try to compete with or copy formats on other channels. So no rolling news service (BBC) or lifestyle sofa-based show (GMTV), nor the now horribly dated “wacky” approach of The Big Breakfast. Camera crews in shot and lots of people shouting were out. To my mind, the most successful breakfast formats of any channel have succeeded ultimately thanks to the characters of the main hosts – everything has flowed from that. A kind of loose, magazine based strand with plenty of filmed reports and “mini” C4 shows could only work, I believed, if the right people were presenting (which is where the Channel Four Daily, in part, failed).

I settled on Brian Hayes and Sarah Greene as the kind of personalities I’d believe could pull this off – both professionals, both long-overdue a reappearance on TV. The new show, The Morning After, wouldn’t go flat out for two million plus viewers – that was impractical. It was to be different, surprising, maybe hold people’s attention for all of 10 minutes, but never deliver shoddy presentation or features. It had to be so, I thought, to work as a breakfast programme and still be distinctive. If I had any existing or previous format in mind, it was the old LWT Six O’clock Show – and to this end, I listed Danny Baker as one of the “reporting team”. I also cheekily billed the BBC show Living with the Enemy as one of the mini-strands. This would cause problems later on.

Weekday mornings I filled with schools programmes – half an hour extra than at present as I believed C4 could and should compensate for its own and BBC2′s recent trend towards scaling down educational output. I replaced Powerhouse with Hustings, five days a week, and hosted by faces from C4 News rather than jobbing MPs. I brought back Light Lunch, believing Mel and Sue would welcome another chance after the relatively unimpressive Late Lunch and their respective careers since. And it was such a fine programme. My daily racing show ran at 1.30pm, except on Wednesdays, the day I chose for extended full afternoon coverage. I retained the trend for light-hearted, gentle, lifestyle based shows running mid-afternoon – Watercolour Challenge, Collector’s Lot, Great Estates. I also ran archive comedy – The Odd Couple – plus a twice weekly “curiosity” show, perfect for Valerie Singleton, a new literary review show (again, the only thing of its kind on television) and a new rural magazine programme hosted by Anna Hill from Radio 4′s Farming Today.

Having dealt with one of my “compulsory” figures – Iain Lee – in Upload, I now had to decide what to do with another two: Richard and Judy. I had to use them every day, honouring their existing contract with Channel 4. 4 At 5 was the best I could come up with – a vaguely Nationwide-esque format where the pair would host one set interview, introduce live music, cue in reports from the “team” and join a guest panel to review issues. There would be no live phone-ins – they always brought at the worst in R&J on This Morning. I believed it could work, and wouldn’t be up against anything similar on other channels.

Their show would be followed by a mixture of programmes from 6 – 7pm daily aimed at youth audiences. Hollyoaks remained three times a week, but now on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. As If returned for a second series on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while I brought back Remote Control, a new series of Futurama, repeats of the old kids’ drama Palace Hill, a spin-off cod-TOTP music show, and a new vehicle for Zig and Zag. I had no intention of trying to come up with a new Friday evening Tube/TFI Friday format; and also wanted to axe the staid, derivative The Priory. And I certainly had no desire to continue repeating ancient series of Friends on different days at different times week in week out.

Lastly I turned to the weekend. Both afternoons were already taken up with the obligatory sport. I kept T4 on Sunday mornings, but tried to mix in a bit more inspired programming, helped by some deals I was subsequently able to close with my “rivals”. Besides the usual racing and football magazines on Saturday morning I created a new film strand, plus repackaged some highlights from The Morning After. I thought My So-Called Life deserved a repeat, having last been seen on C4 four years ago and still in my opinion one of the best US teen dramas ever. I also gave the show for the hard-of-hearing, Vee TV, a regular Saturday slot. Children’s programmes on early Sundays were to be more of a mix of old and new output – thanks in part to the Four-Mations strand which I revived and ran throughout the week.

I felt I could experiment more with the weekend evening schedules. Conscious of providing a decent alternative to down-the-line entertainment on BBC1 and ITV, I programmed early Saturday nights as a mix of history, politics, arts and personal documentaries, leading up to Top Ten … at 9pm – an established audience puller, popular with the advertisers, and which I felt still retained potential and appeal (and would benefit from a regular host like Danny Baker rather than a revolving door of presenters). Then I revived The Show at 10.30pm – but initially envisaged it as concentrating wholly on the run-up to Bob Mills “chat show”, not actually screening the finished article at all (which I’d always found the least interesting part of the original series). Following that I’d concocted a vehicle for my final “compulsory” star. Hot Air saw Donna Air journey to one of the world’s troublespots attempting to make sense of a particularly violent and contentious national incident. For the first week I suggested she travel to the West Bank. My justification was that, through Donna’s own inability or otherwise to react to the situations she found herself in, both her and our own prejudices and perceptions would be challenged and exposed. I also liked the title.

Overnights on the weekend I programmed repeats of recent shows, deliberately of a accessible and hopefully popular kind (rather than overly niche), plus another Nightride compilation. Sunday evenings were prefaced with more youth-flavoured output: a rerun for Press Gang from the beginning, and a new spin-off from Hollyoaks featuring the show’s two best characters (Max and OB), both intended to provide a different kind of programme at that hour to other channels. Scrapheap Challenge, the news and a recommissioned Right to Reply (without the dreadful Roger Bolton) led into a strand of one-off documentaries of a light-hearted nature, before a Film Four season at 9pm. My last “new” show was Waterman Beat on Sundays at 10.30pm: a platform for Pete Waterman – one of the best authorities and talkers on popular culture, and something cocky for that late hour.

I was relatively pleased with my schedules so far, but felt they could be enhanced with some output currently owned by other channels. Consequently one week ahead of our meeting, I circulated a list of the shows I’d decided would be up for “sale”. These were:

Ally McBeal (all series, including the latest, as yet only seen on E4)
Sex and the City (all series)*
Pet Rescue*
Roseanne (all series)
Football Stories
Transworld Sport
WWF Wrestling
Will and Grace (first series etc)*
Dawson’s Creek (first two series only)

Those marked * I was prepared to let go for nothing, while the others would have to involve some kind of reciprocal deal.

The reasons I picked these particular programmes were varied. I believed that with its extended racing, football and minority sports coverage, C4 could afford to get rid of Transworld Sport and wrestling. The Pet Rescue format I considered exhausted – on Channel 4 at least. I’d never been happy with the Football Stories strand, that particular kind of programme-making sitting oddly with the style of documentaries elsewhere on C4, and much more suited to another network. The other shows were all US imports. I thought it was practical to get rid of Roseanne, a product very much of its time and not deserving of a repeat run on C4 in the near future. Both this and the first two series of Dawson’s Creek I thought possible to sell off without jeopardising audience share – C4 would still have all the later Dawson‘s seasons, the first two having been repeated several times and far enough back in narrative terms to make no difference.

I thought Sex and the City a bland, ill-defined programme that didn’t justify the cost in buying and maintaining the rights. Both it and Ally McBeal I felt uncomfortable with on “my” Channel 4. I was well aware the latter was one of the station’s existing audience pullers, but believed I could hold onto the equivalent number of viewers with other programmes. C4 should never have bought Will and Grace – advance publicity (the show hadn’t begun when we were compiling our schedules) suggested it was merely another two-dimensional character piece churned out on the sitcom conveyor belt. I deliberately put that up for sale for free to see who’d want it. (Of course, programmes such as ER and Frasier were still C4 property, I just chose not to schedule them).

Within a couple of hours of making this list available I’d heard from Barney (ITV) who asked for, and consequently got, Sex and the City. He also indicated he was interested in Ally McBeal, Dawson’s Creek and Transworld Sport, but suspected that ITV didn’t “really have much in its locker that C4 would like … Perhaps C4 might like an exclusive deal with Davina McCall instead?” I replied that some kind of arrangement might be possible on the basis of C4 obtaining specific chunks of the ITV archive – and guaranteeing that certain artists I’d signed up (I was thinking of Brian Hayes and Sarah Greene) had not also been signed up by himself. I also wondered out loud whether Des Lynam had a place in the prospective ITV line-up.

The following day Jack (BBC2) asked for Will and Grace, which I was only too happy to handover. My offer to negotiate over the other shows I listed, and also maybe some programmes not listed, was met with a stubborn silence. Graham (BBC1) also observed that I’d offered up “a prime selection of programming – none of which will find a home on BBC1.” It became clear my main line of negotiations would be pursued with ITV – unless I heard from Channel 5. Sure enough, Barney continued talks, agreeing to my request for access to the archives. As for Des, “If C4 were to offer him certain career opportunities, ITV would not stand in his way, especially if it secured us some winsome legal drama.” He ended: “Is Graham Norton happy at C4?” I hadn’t included Norton in my schedules, mainly by accident – now an offer was possible, and I was determined to let him go – but at a fair price.

When Steve (C5) posted the list of programmes he was looking to get rid off, I was clearly interested in The Wonder Years. But what could I offer in return? Steve wanted Angel, because “C4 don’t know where to put it”. I was happy with this. Indeed, Steve then approached me personally offering up a swap of Angel “and/or Dawson’s Creek” for The Wonder Years. He claimed he couldn’t find anywhere to put The Wonder Years in his new schedule – which I was surprised at, but happy to learn. I then let him know that I’d been approached by someone expressing interest in Dawson’s Creek already (no doubt he already knew who), but assured him I would be in touch again about this if “no other offers are satisfactory – though I haven’t a bloody clue what I would like in return. Daria maybe??”

Returning to ITV, I dropped the big hint that “Mersey Television might be looking for a commission from ITV as well”, and set out my terms for the “sale” of Ally McBeal: namely that C4 got full access to the existing LWT, Granada and Central archives (I’d already pencilled in Palace Hill, Whoops Apocalypse and the Nightride strand, and wanted clearance), that ITV weren’t using Sarah Greene, and that none of the ITV franchises would run their regional news programmes between 5.30 and 6pm (competition with Richard and Judy and their own regional features) I also asked for indication of how flexible ITV would be over “the potential release of Des Lynam for additional commitments Monday – Friday” and that I was willing to negotiate over Graham Norton, but reminded Barney that “the BBC failed to sign Mr Norton ostensibly because they didn’t provide him with a suitable enough vehicle. Maybe you can suggest what format ITV might have in mind for Norton?” I also wanted to know exactly what ITV would do with Dawson’s Creek if it got it. In a sudden act of generosity, I gave Transworld Sport to Barney for nothing.

Barney then agreed to my request over archives, but inserted the caveat that there could be “no repeats of Coronation Street after 6pm, no repeats of Morse or Frost during any past or present runs that ITV might be showing now or in the future.” This was fine, as I had no intention of showing these programmes anyway. Regarding Graham Norton: “Provisionally we’d like Graham to develop a new primetime ‘people show’ based on the existing ‘stay standing’ element of So …, where Graham can ‘interact’ further with his audience, get them on stage and completely humiliate them …”

While l mulled this over, I contacted Steve, suggesting rather desperately that “I could give Dappledown Farm yet another new home, which would help keep Brian Cant in pocket, but that’s about it. I’ll offer up the first two Dawson‘s series if I don’t hear from the others soon – and by way of return I’d have to insist upon some kind of commitment from you over where you intended to schedule a) Home and Away and b) your main evening news bulletin.” In response, Steve announced publicly that he had no intention of selling Dappledown Farm – I was back where I started.

I sent Barney my plans for Des – a regular spot on Richard and Judy’s new show – and expressed my worries over Dawson’s Creek being scheduled up against R&J. “C4 has been approached again by another channel very interested in Dawson‘s, and might be inclined to take this bid seriously were ITV not to consider placing the series on a weekend only.” I then had a tip-off that potential negotiations over a sale of The South Bank Show and Melvyn Bragg to BBC1 were not going well. I contacted Barney at ITV to ask him what the situation was, and to indicate Bragg could have a home on C4, though not to present The South Bank Show.

Meanwhile Steve let me know that, regarding a potential sale of Dawson’s Creek, C5 had “no plans to move Home and Away from the slot that it has at the moment.” This was not what I wanted to hear. Ideally I’d have liked Home and Away to have been moved; and anyway Dawson‘s was now, more or less, an ITV show. I replied to this effect, but offered up other shows personally to Steve he might be interested in instead – Malibu and King of the Hill. Steve seemed to take affront: “Harumph. I would have given it a great slot as well that would have been beneficial to us both.” I countered, “Well, I think there’s going to be some trouble anyway since you said you’re leaving Home and Away at 6pm, where of course it’s going to hurt C4 badly. But whatever …” Steve asked for Party of Five, in return for Daria. I agreed. He also wanted My So-Called Life, but that was already back in my schedule.

Meanwhile, Barney OK’d the use of Des, and that Dawson‘s would not be on a weekday. Bragg was also up for sale, so I “bought” him to host a new teatime arts strand on Saturdays. Barney then had two further favours: that C4 wouldn’t object to Wayne Hemingway co-presenting a new late night fashion and entertainment series on ITV, and did C4 still have a claim on the rights to the format of Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush? To the first I replied that as I’d axed The Big Breakfast anyway, C4 couldn’t really express an opinion here – but something which C4 was now concerned about was on which nights this “entertainment series” was due to go out on. “Is it possible for this info to be revealed,” I wondered, “to avoid potential future boardroom conflicts?” Sadly I had no reply on this matter from Barney so the issue had to wait until the meeting itself. I was, of course, happy to sanction the use of Toothbrush.

<Part One