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Channel 4 at 25

The first quarter-century of Britain's provocative fourth channel

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Hard though it might be for some to believe, in 1982 Britain had only three television channels - BBC's 1 and 2, and ITV. Home video recording was still young, and though the satellite and cable revolution had been threatening to erupt for some time, the arrival of the first UK operators was still a few years off. Petitions for a fourth channel had begun as early as the late 1950s; television sets since the late 1960s were equipped to receive it (which meant that unlike all of terrestrial television's other launches, Channel 4's involved no lengthy behind-the-scenes negotiations with manufacturers, no new transmitters, and no limitations on audience). Many had long assumed that the new service would be, in effect if not necessarily in name, ITV2. What emerged was rather different.

Channel 4's eventual form was in part a compromise between the demand for competitive expansion in broadcasting (with a new market for advertising), and the presumed virtues of the BBC's public service ethos. Added to this was a desire - in keeping with the early Thatcher Government's objective to deregulate markets and encourage entrepreneurship - to allow new space for independent producers previously stuck on the margins of British television (while American companies were apparently more than welcomed by the 'duopoly' of BBC and ITV).

The new channel would be managed directly by the Independent Broadcasting Authority; its revenue would come from a subsidy from the ITV companies, who would sell its advertising space and keep the revenue. It would be a publisher, not a producer - favouring (though not exclusively so) independent producers over the established giants.

First chief executive Jeremy Isaacs had determined that there would be no opening razzmatazz of the kind that marked the arrival of ITV 27 years earlier. Instead, Channel 4 would begin with a full evening's programming - a taste of what was to come. The schedule opened with word quiz show Countdown (1982-), and later programmes included a literary discussion programme, Book Four (1982-85); the first hour-long news bulletin, Channel 4 News (1982-); the twice-weekly soap, Brookside (1982-2003); Australian comedy import The Paul Hogan Show; and a feminist cabaret, In the Pink. The evening's highlights were two new single dramas: Stephen Frears' bleak, moving story of the mentally handicapped Walter, and the Enid Blyton spoof 'Five Go Mad in Dorset', first in a series of comedy-dramas under the banner The Comic Strip Presents... (1982-88). The latter marked the first major television outing for the new 'alternative comedy' generation - BBC2's The Young Ones (1982-84) launched a week later - a signpost that the channel aimed to be ahead of the trends.

The diversity of this line-up signalled the channel's interpretation of its brief to cater for 'minorities', which saw programming for those traditionally underrepresented by the mainstream. Black and Asian viewers were offered their own magazine and documentary series (Eastern Eye, 1982-85; Black on Black, 1983-85; Bandung File, 1985-91; Black Bag, 1991-97), while Out on Tuesday/Out (1989-94) was a first attempt to cater for a gay audience. The commitment to independent producers meant that different agendas came to the fore, notably from the 'workshop' sector that had sprung up during the 1970s to address issues of race and sexual discrimination and political marginalisation. The target audience was not quite the communities of yachting or golf enthusiasts that Conservative cabinet ministers had apparently envisaged.

But if Channel 4's executives hoped that there was 'something for everyone' in such a line-up, then early feedback must have given them pause. In the first few weeks, tabloid newspapers, most of which were in any case not much in sympathy with the channel's liberal interpretation of its remit, delighted in reports that the great British public was expressing its enthusiasm for the new channel by choosing to watch something else. Audience figures for some programmes were said to be too small to register in the ratings; it wasn't clear if even the channel's own announcers were watching. The consensus, at least in the tabloids, was that Channel 4's programming was pretentious, dreary and hopelessly out of step with the viewers: The Sun gleefully dubbed it 'Channel Snore'.

But Channel 4 stuck to its guns, and an audience did begin to build. Early evening music show The Tube (1982-87) started to pull in younger viewers and soon became a cult hit; the near anarchy of the show contrasted well with the sobriety of rival offerings like BBC2's The Old Grey Whistle Test (1971-87). The Tube's irreverent presenters, Jools Holland and Paula Yates, alongside the Comic Strip team, were taken as emblematic of the Channel's fresher, more youthful approach.

Another factor in the Channel's growing success was controversy - sometimes accidental, sometimes craftily exploited for promotional effect. Brookside was an early offender - the series' desire to offer a more accurate representation of everyday reality meant that characters not only argued and fought, they swore. This was among the first of a series of 'storms over Four' (now 'Channel Swore', for The Sun), but in this case at least, the channel backed down, realising that the offended constituency included many of the audiences that Brookside was intended to serve. Meanwhile, Channel 4 News, which had struggled to find an identity, came into its own during the 1984-85 Miners' Strike, gaining a reputation for a more detailed appraisal of the issues than its rivals (thanks to its longer timeslot) and, crucially, being judged more balanced in its coverage. Documentary strands like Dispatches (1987-), Diverse Reports (1984-87) and Equinox (1986-2001) were similarly respected, while Without Walls (1990-96) and The Media Show (1987-1993) took a fresh approach to arts programming. Arguably the boldest innovation of the early years was After Dark (1987-91), an open-ended discussion programme that could last well into the small hours, with an invited panel exploring the assigned topic (sometimes historical, sometimes contemporary) in a depth never previously imagined on national television.

Perhaps more wilfullly provocative was 1986's Red Triangle initiative, which gathered together a number of mostly foreign and art films linked by their reputation for sexually explicit content (inevitably leading to a new tabloid epithet, 'Channel Phwoar'). The frenzy of criticism that followed apparently had the effect of driving up audiences, until those in search of titillation discovered that the material on offer was not so much pornographic as avant-garde or art cinema with minimal sex and, disappointed, turned off. Nevertheless, provocation became one of the channel's hallmarks, from the moralist-baiting Red Light Zone (1995; a season of documentaries which mostly took a notably serious look at issues of sexuality) to The Word (1990-95), whose post-pub shock tactics were further pursued on Eurotrash (1993-2005) and the shortlived The Girlie Show (1996-97). It was this menu in the late 1980s and early 90s that saw second chief executive Michael Grade reviled as 'Britain's Pornographer-in-Chief' by the Daily Mail. At the other end of the schedule, the brash, exuberant Chris Evans helped make The Big Breakfast (1992-2002) a hit, and his departure nearly killed the show until producers happened upon the magic formula of Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen. Evans, meanwhile, returned with hyperactive game show Don't Forget Your Toothbrush (1994-95), and the on-the-edge chat and entertainment show TFI Friday (1996-2000), which fell foul of the regulators for its pre-watershed bad language. Channel 4 had already reinvigorated the chat show format with The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross (1987-88), which reworked the slick, irreverent style of American hosts like David Letterman for a British context.

Channel 4's engagement with a younger audience has often expressed itself in controversy, but it also lies behind its investment in comedy. Relatively conventional early offerings like Fairly Secret Army (1984-86) and Relative Strangers (1985-87) were balanced against edgier series like alternative showcase Saturday Live/Friday Night Live (1985-88) and sketch show Who Dares Wins... (1984-88), while game show Whose Line Is It Anyway? (1988-98) introduced the new generation of 'improvisation' comedy. In later years, a host of Channel 4 programmes made a disproportionate contribution to the cause of developing TV comedy: the insane vaudeville that was Vic Reeves' Big Night Out (1990-91); newsroom satire Drop the Dead Donkey (1990-98); Desmond's (1988-94), Britain's first truly successful black sitcom; off-centre female sketch show Smack the Pony (1999-2002); Candid Camera update Trigger-Happy TV (2000-02); the New Labour-baiting Bremner, Bird and Fortune (1999-); the deceptively traditional Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights (2001-02); the surreal lunacy of Father Ted (1995-98), Black Books (2000-04) and Spaced (1999-2001); the misanthropic Peep Show (2003-). Again, such programming occasionally made enemies. Sacha Baron-Cohen's Ali G, who, like Ricky Gervais, emerged from the otherwise ill-favoured The 11 O'Clock Show (1998-2000), was judged by some to be a racist caricature (as was Baron-Cohen's other creation, Borat). But the channel's most confrontational comedy came from Chris Morris, who delighted in causing widespread offence with his savage, 'irresponsible' satire Brass Eye (1997; 2001), which duped celebrities and politicians into endorsing a variety of absurd, hoaxed 'campaigns', and managed to get questions asked in parliament about a 'made-up' drug called 'cake'. One sketch fell foul of Michael Grade, leading Morris to get himself into more hot water by editing subliminal abuse against Grade into another edition. Nevertheless, Channel 4 stuck with Morris, giving a home to his next darkly surreal venture, Jam (2000), and even offering extra space for a late-night 'remix' version, Jaaaaam.

In drama, the channel made room for both relatively mainstream offerings - The Far Pavilions (1984); Mapp and Lucia (1984-85); A Woman of Substance (1985); The Camomile Lawn (1992) - and more confrontational fare such as heroin trafficking saga Traffik (1989), conspiracy thriller A Very British Coup (1987), Alan Bleasdale's politically complex G.B.H. (1991), the in-your-face celebration of homosexuality that was Queer as Folk (1999-2000) and the harrowing Sex Traffic (2004). Some had hoped that the new channel would revive the dying single drama anthology; instead, after the surprise success of 1985's My Beautiful Laundrette, the channel invested in feature films, setting up its own production arm, FilmFour, and becoming a major player with diverse releases like A Company of Wolves (1984), Distant Voices/Still Lives (1988), Howard's End (1992), Bhaji on the Beach (1993) and works by Derek Jarman, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. These releases helped fuel a spin-off film channel, also called Film Four; it was later joined by E4 and More 4, which premiered programmes later to appear on Channel 4.

It sponsored smaller works too: the blossoming of British animation in 1980s and 90s was thanks in large part to Channel 4's investment; British animators featured heavily in the regular Four-Mations (1990-98). More avant-garde and political work from the independent and co-operative filmmaking community was given a home in the Eleventh Hour slot (1982-88) and elsewhere in the schedule. Amber Films, Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa Film and Video, Retake Film and Video and Red Flannel Productions were among the film 'workshops' that benefited from the Channel's commitment to this sector in its early days.

The British broadcasting environment has changed beyond recognition since 1982. Just two programmes from that first evening's schedule survive (Countdown and Channel 4 News), and the channel has had to accommodate the proliferation of rivals while, after it took over responsibility for the sale of advertising in 1993, being forced to adapt to the demands of the market. For many critics, including Jeremy Isaacs, this has meant an unforgivable dilution of its original cutting edge remit, although the channel can point to recent hits like Shameless (2004-) and Peep Show as evidence that it can still produce innovative programming while satisfying audiences. Often, though, one man's innovation is another man's sell-out. Channel 4 was a leading player in the late 90s 'reality TV boom', contributing formats - including Faking It (2000-05) and Wife Swap (2003-) - that were acclaimed by some, but hated by others.

Particularly problematic has been the phenomenal success of Big Brother (2000-) and Celebrity Big Brother (2001-07), which by 2006 were between them accounting for an astonishing 15 per cent of the channel's annual income. Even Channel 4 executives were concerned at the extent of their reliance on this one franchise, but it was near-impossible to imagine an escape route, not least because they had just been forced to renegotiate with the format's creators Endemol - upping the cost of the deal to a massive £180 million for three years. In this context, the storm of controversy that greeted 2007's Celebrity Big Brother was unwelcome, to say the least - particularly when the channel was simultaneously campaigning for an injection of public funding. The racist abuse suffered by contestant Shilpa Shetty (the eventual winner) caused a political incident that spread from the UK to her native India, and exposed an apparent naivety in Channel 4's bosses, who seemed at first to be in hiding, forlornly hoping for the storm to pass over. The events took their toll on that summer's Big Brother 8, which saw an 18 per cent drop in audience and markedly cooler press coverage. By no means for the first time in Channel's history, there were calls for privatisation.

Channel 4 celebrates its first quarter-century at another turning point in its history. Like other broadcasters, it has seen its younger audiences begin to ebb away, bound for the attractions of online rivals like YouTube. The American imports on which it has relied so heavily are increasingly beyond its means. The immediate future will see it investing heavily in enhancing its web profile, as well as, controversially, a move into radio and a half-stake in three music television channels. The longer term is more uncertain, although there are signs that communications regulator Ofcom is keen to push the channel towards a renewal of its public service commitment, possibly with public investment, and that Channel 4 is already beginning to re-evaluate its programming. It would be a very rash individual who offered predictions about where the Channel will find itself in another 25 years.

Mark Duguid

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