Channel 4 and its Remit: Defining Difference

by Dr Ieuan Franklin, Bournemouth University

Channel 4 was launched in November 1982 to entertain, educate and experiment (in the form and content of programmes), and to appeal to tastes and interests not catered for by ITV - these principles were enshrined in its ‘remit’, under the terms of the 1980 Broadcasting Act. It was immediately duped Channel Bore or Snore in the press (more on this later), but soon lost the nicknames, having broken new ground in many areas, and having catalysed the independent sector into being – initially as much as 40% of the channel’s programmes were sourced from independents. It was in December 1984 that C4 first attained its goal of reaching 10% of the available viewing audience; within a decade it was able to hold on to this share consistently. That the fourth channel could be a publishing house which commissioned innovative programming and, at the same time, be funded by a levy of ITV profits was an arrangement that Roger Graef called ‘the best piece of financial and political tightrope-walking I’ve ever seen’.(1) But from 1993 the safety net was moved away when the channel was obligated to sell its own advertising, fully exposing C4 to the commercial environment, including hostile ITV ad directors. This gave C4 an increasingly commercial orientation, chasing ratings rather than remit objectives. But, to its credit, today C4 still commands roughly 10% of the available audience, despite the competition created by massive disruptions to the media ecology in the intervening period, including cable and satellite TV, streaming, apps, and so on. Importantly, it has maintained its commitment to multiculturalism, and kept a close relationship with its audience, despite the increased pressures on public service broadcasting from cost-cutting governments. This can be regarded as a legacy of the work C4 carried out to create a distinct feeling of accessibility to its viewers. We can think here of the fondly remembered ‘Video Box’ in the nightly Comment slot after the news (a means of of ‘broadcasting yourself’ decades before YouTube); Right to Reply (which treated audience reactions seriously); and the personal and community viewpoints of Diverse Reports and People to People.

At a recent panel discussion at the BFI Southbank (C4: The Television Revolution) which brought many of the original C4 team together,(2) John Ranelagh, who had played the key role in developing the commissioning system, expressed regret that the remit had never been consistently used as a basis for assessing the value and success of C4’s programming. In the event this was not taken up by the other panellists, but there are several reasons why Ranelagh’s point is important.

Firstly, if the commissioning editors had done this it would have created more transparency about the commissioning process for independent producers, amongst many of whom there was a degree of confusion and anger about the lack of a clear sense of a criteria that related to both the statutory remit to produce ‘innovative’ programming, and how this fit into the overall programme-making policy as a whole.(3) Who was determining what being innovatory in form and content consisted of, and how was this being judged? This was a phrase which was open to all sorts of interpretations – from artists’ film and video to work merely deemed unsuitable at one time or another for broadcast on ITV. Hence the need for an alternative set of criteria for considering the Channel’s performance to that used to evaluate the output of the ITV companies. For their part, key figures at C4 did recognise that for it to be experimental and innovatory it was necessary for the channel not only encourage a range of production practices and ways of contextualising and presenting programmes, but also different approaches to assessing the quality – as well as quantity – of the audience response. But for some the channel needed to go further – to find ways to openly discuss with the audience their desire to offer genuine difference, and to build audiences consensually on this basis.

It is important to note that, as a publisher-broadcaster, C4 was much smaller and ‘leaner’ than the other broadcasters – particularly the large, compartmentalised departments of the BBC. Amongst the fourteen commissioning editors were people new to television and arriving from other fields. All this meant a greater freshness, flexibility and a certain ‘constructive ambiguity’ in terms of the overlapping of departments and blurring of programme classifications. All of this was innovative in itself - and it thereby entailed a qualitatively different relationship between the institution and the independent producers.

It could be argued that a laissez-faire attitude prevailed in the very early years whereby the channel let the amorphous early independent sector – particularly those people who had never succeeded in getting their work on television - to set the terms for what innovation meant. We might term this the ‘let a thousand flowers bloom’ approach, which led the channel to test the frontiers of taste in commissioning ‘untried’ programme styles and techniques. Paul Bonner later admitted that ‘I sometimes think that Jeremy [Isaacs] and I defended the indefensible – but it was the best way of getting through and increasing the quality’.(4) Within a month of the launch night, the home secretary Willie Whitelaw was complaining of ‘bad language, political bias and other undesirable qualities’ on the new channel. Ultimately, however, Whitelaw and Thatcher turned a blind eye to Channel 4’s radical output, as they were ultimately more concerned with what they saw as the broadcaster’s role in promoting small businesses (the independent production companies) and breaking the BBC/ITV production duo poly in broadcasting.

With the deregulation of broadcasting and the proliferation of channels, ratings assumed increasing importance, and so did the narratives created by schedulers and marketing executives. In many cases the producer or filmmaker was then increasingly responding to the channel’s definition of its own output, rather than the channel responding to the vision of the independent producers that supplied the bulk of it. Of course, the remit has changed since 1982, but there has also arguably been a slippage in terms of C4’s definition of its core motivating principles. C4’s has proudly declared that it is/was ‘born risky’, and in a sense this reconnection with its origins seemed to signal that the channel had moved beyond the obsession with ratings to, once again, place stock in delivering a narrative and brand that differentiated C4 from its competitors. In this spirit C4 recently relaunched their brand in a new campaign entitled ‘Altogether Different’ which blurs the line between the channel’s celebration of what makes it distinctive and its celebration of difference. It is too early to say which campaign is, or will prove, more coherent and effective. ‘Altogether Different’ has a nice ring about it, although under the terms of capitalist mass marketing difference and consumption have been constructed as nearly identical.

Perhaps the ‘reboot’ is a partial recognition that their previous invocation of risk really relates only to youthful edginess and the channel’s interest in breaking taboos. Whilst this is something that is part of the channel’s DNA, and which has resulted in provocative and interesting programming – e.g. various examples of youth TV, the legendary talk show After Dark (1987-1991) and the Banned season (1990) – such programming is still subcultural and rebellious rather than either populist or radical. This is because this evocation of risk is merely a conflation of innovation and controversy. There is another significant conception of risk, relating to experiment (in form as well as content), trusting creatives, and giving them the ‘freedom to fail’. Former commissioning editor for C4’s Independent Film and Video Department Rod Stoneman described ‘risk taking’ as at ‘the centre of our commissioning activity’. Despite the uncertainty inscribed in risk taking, Stoneman portrayed it as nevertheless an ‘explicable basis for making a judgement or taking a decision’.(5)

Risk still exists at Channel 4, but as an edgy ‘vibe’ rather than a licence to experiment, and as the exception rather than the rule. The recent Channel 4 at 40 conference at the BFI began with an excellent keynote from Prof. John Ellis, who began by showing a clip of Jeremy Isaacs explaining his decision to organise the first day’s schedule not as a showcase but as a normal evening’s entertainment, and thereby not to just ‘pick the plums from the plum cake’. Throughout the conference people returned to this metaphor to argue that exciting and radical programming needed to be consistently visible on screens and schedules rather than mere relief from the onslaught of property programmes and reality TV, or merely as bids to attain RTS awards, critical kudos and column inches in newspapers and annual reports.

Of course, there are vested interests, financial as well as cultural, in maintaining existing kinds of programming. As C4 commissioning editor Paul Madden observed in 1992, ‘if the tried and trusted are the only models for comparison, can anyone be surprised that new forms are judged to be raw, gauche, amateurish, rough, left-wing and ultimately undesirable’? (6) It is interesting that political radicalism and production values are often linked in this manner. As Margaret Dickinson noted at the forementioned conference, critics who decry a media product for its politics or morals will often also accuse it of being badly made – both dangerous and unwatchable. That pattern was evident in the early press reaction to C4 – even before it had launched there were accusations of ‘ghetto journalism’. But the ‘Channel Bore’ and ‘Channel Swore’ headlines were, in reality, not convenient banners for meaningful debates about accessibility but manifestations of a bitter battle being fought behind the scenes between the channel and the ITV companies, who were furious that the fourth channel was not ITV-2. They therefore began briefing against it - passing information to the press, and misrepresenting advertiser support. One hatchet job printed in The Standard on 3rd December 1982 reproduced an extended tirade by an unnamed ‘ITV man’ which include the following,

It may be legitimate to give groups of people who claim they haven’t had access to the airwaves – because they are black or gay or women – the chance to address society. But that’s quite a different objective to satisfying the audience. After all, the audience may not want to be addressed by these people.

Attitudes of these kind are nowadays regarded as outmoded and illegitimate (and offensive). But they were very widespread during the ‘Storm over 4’ period, and ultimately led to the channel emphasising its similarity with the rest of British television. This, in turn, made it more difficult to mediate the more innovative – and hence unfamiliar – programmes to their audience, leading to their marginalisation in the schedule. The successes of C4, however, did bolster practitioners in the other channels who were trying to undertake work in a similar vein. When these successes were ‘new’ ideas it arguably encouraged a slightly more permissive attitude to risk-taking elsewhere. BBC-2 followed up so many of its ideas that it made C4’s job still harder!

There is no question that these issues persist today (hence the emphasis on difference). Despite all the advances and genuine innovations Channel 4 has made in the area of multicultural programming, for example, there is a danger that, with its reliance on a sort of post-racial version/vision of diversity –the same formats and stories with different faces – it risks being overtaken by its competitors. At the conference it was often the BBC who received plaudits for programmes that are not just diverse but emotionally visceral and stylistically innovative (such as Michaela Cole’s I May Destroy You or Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series of films). Perhaps this shows that commissioning editors at Channel 4 have never quite developed the confidence to evolve their own criteria for evaluating the channel’s programmes and their performance, and have thereby allowed others to determine how its success is to be measured.

About the Author

Dr Ieuan Franklin is Lecturer in History and Politics at Bournemouth University.


(1) Channel 4: The Television Revolution, BFI Southbank, 23rd September 2022.

(2) Paul Madden, ‘Channel Without a Cause’, Stills, April 1985, p. 47.

(3) Carl Gardner, ‘Like it or Lump It, The Listener, 16th August 1984, p. 28.

(4) Quoted in ‘Thanks 4’, Televisual, November 1992, p. 19.

(5) Stoneman, R. (2010) 'Chance and Change' in Hjort, M. (ed.) Film and Risk, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

(6) Paul Madden, ‘Channel Without a Cause’, Stills, April 1985, p. 47.