The ABC of E4

Ian Jones, Jack Kibble-White and Graham Kibble-White on E4 programming

First published February 2001

E4 starts transmission at 4pm everyday, kicking off weekdays with four hours of programming which dives solidly for the lower end of its targeted audience of “media-aware 18-34 year-old ABCs”. Here, E4 wholly appropriates the highly successful Channel 4 T4 strand. On its parent channel T4 runs through each Sunday with a mixture of kids shows, cartoons, the Hollyoaks omnibus and lifestyle docusoaps. E4 follows the same template but jettisons the more younger-orientated series for an exclusively teenage audience. The same hosts – Dermot O’Leary and Margherita Taylor – are in charge, linking each show from inside the lobby of Channel 4 headquarters. They display their familiar likeable self-awareness of the pointlessness of their role while not being afraid to slag off shows they don’t like. Come 8pm, their exit helpfully signals the division between E4′s niche broadcasting and primetime fare.

Having a youth strand running so late into the evening is something of a novelty on British television; DEF II only ever lasted till 7.30pm. So far, however, it has made for some confusing counter-scheduling, particularly when Hollyoaks starts on Channel 4 at which point E4 are usually cueing in their chief music show Popworld. On one occasion the ‘Oaks was beginning on C4 while Dermot was talking, oblivious, to one of its stars on E4. Moreover each episode of Hollyoaks is now repeated on E4 24 hours after it was first shown on C4, and at 5.30pm – a timeslot competing with both Neighbours on BBC1, Friends or Ricki Lake on C4, and The Wonder Years on C5. Fridays are a problem as well, when new episodes of Dawson’s Creek on C4 are directly up against the brand new E4 youth soap As If.

As If is the linchpin for E4′s early evening T4 strand. There’s a new episode every day, shown at both 4.30pm and 6pm, and the whole show receives heavy promotion throughout the schedules. The hype is off-putting, as is the relentless pushing of the As If = youth = trendy equation, heralded straight away by the use of contemporary pop and dance records as both the show’s title music and soundtrack. However so far the series has been quite compelling. For one thing the context and background to the core group of characters – six good-looking students – is teasingly left unclear. They’re students, but studying what, and where, and why, is a mystery. But this doesn’t matter. As If is entirely character driven, and thankfully the number of well-acted believable cast members outnumber the pathetically wooden. They’re all clichés – Lad-Bloke, Token Gay, Black Woman, Geek, Outsider and Unlucky-In-Love – but still intriguing, affecting, and fun.

As a rule no scene usually lasts more than 10 seconds and has to include multiple camera angles, slow motion, speeded up film, jump cuts, flashbacks, fantasy sequences and – most striking of all – talking to the camera. Again, this is rather unoriginal but it’s new to soap opera and thanks to the show’s general bravado it works. We have the characters supplying their own narration and addressing the viewer directly, while others wander in and out of shot up to their own schemes and matchmaking.

The storylines deal exclusively with relationships and nothing else (although it does seem that there are seeds being planted for a storyline concerning parental abuse). All the camera trickery and onscreen gimmicks can’t hide the fact that once again this is very common ground, and it’s tempting to conclude that this might not be enough to sustain the show’s momentum in the long run. But so far it’s made for a host of engrossing incidents and a jumble of various wronged ex’s and unrequited love. Someone falls for an older woman via an online chatroom; the internet and mobile phone are crucial tools for this gang in progressing their affairs of the heart.

The gay bloke, Alex, is given a refreshingly avuncular, non-fey personality but – oh no! – he hasn’t told his parents so immediately we’re back into character-with-a-dark-secret territory. This is tired and lazy plotting, as is the fake assumption trotted out for the thousandth time that homosexuals are only ever happy on the dancefloor in some dingy club. Maybe events will take an unexpected turn (Gay Man Doesn’t Like Clubbing Shock!) It’d certainly distinguish As If from other recent series with a homosexual central character such as This Life, Queer As Folk and the dreadful Tinsel Town.

Overall it’s a wry, humorous and efficiently made show, self-consciously flash and fast-paced but with depth and sincerity. It’s worth sticking with. It stands shoulders above its E4 peers, such as the distracting but badly produced, and dull-as-ditchwater Popworld and the crap import docusoap North Hollywood High, and it’s also streets ahead of Hollyoaks which at the moment is going through a stale, plodding patch. Therefore it’s perhaps fortunate that As If is made by Carnival Films – in association with Columbia Tristar – and not Mersey Television. Tellingly the credits mention both a series devisor and a programme style devisor while revealing that one of the executive producers is none other than Andi Peters. Quite what his influence on the show is remains unclear; and what with Peters popping up throughout the early episodes of Shipwrecked the former Broom Cupboard gaffer seems to be meandering unwelcome all over the E4 schedules. If he wants something useful to do he could do worse than come up with some other home-grown programming to boost E4′s youth output, since without As If this strand would look dangerously import and repeat heavy.

The E4 start-up at the weekend is hardly different: a reliance on As If and Shipwrecked (whether its a “casting special” or an “extra” edition) finds the station trotting out teen fare for the first couple of hours, until a night of themed programming takes over (Saturdays) or, worse than that, an Ally McBeal repeat (Sundays).

The theme nights, thus far, have been rather cleverly complied, designed not to compete directly with the brash entertainment supplied by the big brother itself (C4). Here instead we explore issues close to the heart of the station’s demographic. Saturday 27 January – for example – saw an excursion into the world of computers. Predictably we alighted on games, cyber sex and hacking – the only things you can do on a computer whilst retaining your street-cred. Whilst the documentaries on the latter two subjects failed to generate any sympathy for the protagonists, or betray any kind of empathy with the subject matter, Thumb Candy was a far more rewarding experience. Although not groundbreaking in format, it was unique in being presented by an Iain Lee shorn of his usual wearisome disdain. Iain loves computer games and seemed genuinely thrilled at the opportunity to play the creator of Donkey Kong in this documentary. Ostensibly a potted history of the computer game, an extended section on Britain’s own Manic Miner ensured this was a lesson in exploring the recent past as evocative as anything broadcast as part of BBC2′s I Love … series.

Sunday nights, however, find E4 happily churning out repeats of the week’s best repeats. It seems that Sunday is omnibus day on satellite TV. Still, strung together in this fashion, the unwavering targeting of E4′s demographic becomes even more obvious. Everything here is a happy mixture of favoured American imports and well-loved, yet safely “spiky”, British programmes; this is the very core of E4.

Post 8pm Monday to Friday is simply a diluted version of Sunday evening. Credible comedies Smack the Pony and The Adam & Joe Show appear at some points most nights, breaking up the deluge of imported programmes. The latter is a new series which will be repeated on C4 later in the year. Friends, Dawson’s Creek, Ally McBeal and ER are all – in their way – steadfast Channel 4 ratings winners. But with Friends (in particular) at last on the wane – with scripting and production values having taken a tumble (the second episode out featured some of the worst back-projection since The Baron) – will E4′s coup of securing first broadcast rights turn out to be not quite as savvy a piece of cheque book scheduling as it first appeared?

Perhaps it’s notable, then, that it is amongst those purely E4 products that the channel appears to be able forge the strongest identity. Whilst Trigger Happy TV is still the simplistic delight it has always been, this is not a programme that positively reeks of E4. Its initial agenda in its original form as three-minute clips on the Paramount Comedy Channel was far more akin to The Mark Thomas Product. Here we found Dom Joly as a political saboteur, specifically targeting politicians with his brand of pranking (“Politics is such a strange profession to be in: MP’s want publicity but are also extremely guarded”). Although the programme has since evolved into “pointless persecution” (as Joly describes it) there is still something dark, even morose about most of the stunts which belies the channel’s “just having a laugh ethos”. Banzai – on the other hand – positively reeks of E4. Cliquey, post-pub, post post-modern, laddish and au fait with crap pop culture (with Pat Sharp, Harold from Neighbours and Peter Davison all making appearances within the first two episodes), Banzai is an impressively rich mixture of ingredients. It contains many of the shock tactics that made The Word such a talking point, but is far less offensive in personality. This is a pseudo-betting game in which viewers are invited to predict the outcome of certain “crazy” events. All of this is conducted in the kind of downmarket, greedy, self-abasing style that has typified Far-Eastern representation on British television post Clive James’ discovery of Endurance. It’s a breezy, fast-moving programme that entertains purely through silliness, but will probably exhaust itself before long.

E4′s second most emblematic programme Show Me the Funny is less successful, but still shows signs of promise. Billed as a selection of new comedy, this is a typically hit and miss affair. Sub-Borat type characters pall quickly; this is often as much fun as listening to one of Steve Wright’s posse taking over at the decks, or watching The Big Breakfast‘s irksome Linton presenting for a day. There is better stuff to come though. “The Blenders” are really just cut-price Dom Joly, but their shtick (to dress up like a passer-by and attempt to blend in with them) is entertaining and mildly original. Similarly, persuading members of the public to swear is vaguely subversive and certainly diverting. And the spectacle of “Drunk Review” (“debating issues of the day whilst getting ripped to the tits”) means that there’s enough reason to keep checking back on the programme twice-weekly. One hopes that the good will flourish and the passé (such as “Celebrity High”) will be weeded out – along with the insipid trio of presenters. Beyond its contribution to comedy, however, Show Me the Funny is most notable in that it champions one of E4′s long-term preoccupations: interactivity. The idea of voting for which clips we want to see via the E4 website is fairly half-heartedly implemented (with losing clips resurfacing in the next edition) but it is nevertheless an engaging and unusual hook for the programme. Of course, Banzai boasts some level of interactivity too (wherein it’s possible for ONdigital users to have their votes tabulated via their handset) and thus it seems that within a year we’ll be able to affect the outcome of anything on E4 with the push of a button.

Further on into the night, E4 seems to lose heart, and in a reversal of fortunes we find most of the programming on offer has already aired on Channel 4. It’s final flagship programme, the documentary series Generation E serves as something of a final “Thought For The Day” then, bridging the gap between the core of E4 programming and the night-time fillers. Generation E has thus far been a fairly unappealing attempt to document the hedonism of the notional “E” generation – a vast subculture of clubbers and drug takers. In essence, these programmes are simply a tally of who shags what, and owes a lot to Sky One’s various Uncovered serials. And in fact, if it is the definitive of who-shags-what telly you are after, than Sky One is probably a better bet: Temptation Island and the beyond parody The Villa are the quintessential exponents of the genre.

All in all, E4 has started life as a spunky, almost “with it” TV station. It is fixating firmly on its young adult audience and attempting, already, to monopolise their next day tea-break discussion topics with irreverent humour, soapy relationships, must-see US telly and occasional nudity. And for now, there is enough reason to keep in touch with the channel. However, wait for the next burst of Event TV (Big Brother 2 perhaps) and we should see E4 really come into its own. It would seem that its programme makers have a passionate desire to position themselves at the forefront of the early 21st century British television agenda. We can be sure they will have their eye already affixed on Davina and the next set of contestants.