The UK’s Channel 4 turns 40 on 4 November 2022. How can we assess the achievements (and failures) of this unique broadcasting initiative? The UK’s fourth TV channel was set up by a Conservative government to be innovative in the form and content of programmes. Now it is just one small group of channels among the hundreds that are available. Conceived as the agent of change in the TV industry, has it now served its purpose?
Boris Johnson’s culture secretary Nadine Dorries certainly thought so, proposing that it should be privatised, and a lot of preparatory work has already been done to achieve this. But Dorries’s judgement was flawed (she thought it was supported by tax revenues rather than by advertising) and the subsequent Conservative governments have grown less and less enthusiastic about the idea. It’s now probable that Channel 4 will continue in its current form, a sentence that is very pleasing to write.
So how do we assess the legacy of 40 years of Channel 4? A conference at BFI Southbank (23rd-24th September 2022) began that process. A conference is the ideal forum for coming to terms with the diversity of Channel 4’s influences. My 40 minute keynote acknowledged the ridiculousness of any summarising of the history (a minute per year!), instead opting to stress the influence on ‘everyday TV’: how Channel 4 has consistently broadened the range of programming about consumer affairs, lifestyles, personal issues from morality to the body. This steady accumulation of instances has changed British TV, despite big missteps like the Big Brother franchises later years, and the proliferation of property programmes instanced by Mandy Merck in a session which concentrated on pioneering programmes on sexuality, alongside Marcus Collins’ examination of the series ‘One in Five’ from 1982.
The conference format allowed for memory sessions as well as formal papers. Campaigning academic Sylvia Harvey and former commissioning editor Rod Stoneman debated whether the original remit of Channel 4 still had any force. Holly Aylett excavated the history of the pioneering women’s current affairs series Broadside, and Margaret Dickinson detailed how an early education series about public transport, Losing Track, was a true academic/producer collaboration.
Channel 4’s distinctive contribution to documentary production has fallen off in recent years, as Steve Presence argued cogently, looking at the legacy of slots for one-off films like Cutting Edge. Others looked at specific instances of breakthrough documentaries, from Phil Agland’s ‘Beyond the Clouds’ to classics like ‘Handsworth Songs’. The internationalist emphasis of Channel 4’s early years was celebrated (critically) by Michael Chanan, mixing witness and analysis. The banner of ‘diversity’ which rationalised much of this work (as well as earlier ‘minority’ programming) was dissected by Anamik Saha, examining how the concept has been deployed in various ways by Channel 4.
Channel 4 has recently had to address its own influence as a cultural institution more centrally. The relocation of its headquarters to Leeds, and the establishment of regional centres elsewhere was examined in two papers by Andrew Spicer and Nathan Townsend. The complicated history of Channel 4’s relationship to Wales and the Welsh language S4C was examined by Elain Price. Arguably, the current devolution initiative was one that was forced on the organisation rather than chosen. However, its address to regional devolution is a huge contrast to that of BBC or ITV, both regional in name only. Another initiative that shows Channel 4’s confidence as a cultural organisation has been its pioneering coverage of the Paralympics, as Dan Jackson outlined in the results of a major research project. Richard Tait, meanwhile, demonstrated how Channel 4 News had in the past been used by Channel 4 as an effective means of fighting off successive privatisation attempts that date back more than 30 years.
Many of these issues are just beginning to receive proper academic attention. The more familiar areas of Channel 4’s contribution to filmmaking, and its foundation of the UK independent production sector. Here, the conference was able to offer fresh research. In a session on Film on 4, Tom May offered a new statistical study, Hannah Andrews extended her well-known work on cinematic television, and Joseph Oldham examined the tortured development of the pivotal series ‘A Very British Coup’. The relationship of Channel 4’s film investment with Scottish independent production was examined by Jonathan Murray, Alistair Scott and Nelson Correa. John Wyver used his research into the development of a standard financing deal and budgeting tool for independent production to ask whether the development of truly independent production had not been hampered by the cost-plus arrangement that guaranteed a modicum of profit.
Wyver himself appeared, along with several other conference presenters, in a session outlining Channel 4’s various approaches to television itself. Paul Kerr contrasted Gogglebox with the 1980s Media Show, and Richard Hewitt showed how television’s own history has been examined in a series of different initiatives. Far from being an inward looking session, this exposed some of the major trends in the development of the Channel 4 ‘family’ of channels, as it now is.
The range of approaches to this 40 year history demonstrated here is remarkable. It stands as a major contribution to understanding the nature of Channel 4 as a cultural institution. Fortunately, all of these sessions were recorded by the BFI and are on YouTube thanks to the conference co-sponsor Royal Holloway’s Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production. The sessions are presented as a continuous stream, but this handy guide tells you where to look for each paper:
CHANNEL 4 THEN AND NOW: BFI SOUTHBANK 23rd-24th SEPTEMBER
FRIDAY 23 SEPTEMBER
Seeing the world anew (chair: Rosie Thomas)
Realising the remit: Witness session (chair: John Wyver)
Race, Documentary Practice and the Radical Politics of Channel 4 (chair: Ruth Adams)
Film on Four (chair: Justin Smith)
TOM MAY From diverse experimentation to chasing The Madness of Four Weddings and Trainspotting: a statistical history of Film on Four (1982-99) on television (pre-recorded) https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=11536
Inventing the organisations (chair: George Guo)
Sexuality (chair: Rowan Aust)
SATURDAY 24 SEPTEMBER
Lost initiatives (Chair: John Ellis)
Scotland (chair: John Hill)
What remains of the original remit? (chair: John Ellis)
Who Dares Wins (chair: Rowan Aust)
Channel 4 devolved (chair: Nick Hall)
Channel 4 News (chair: John Ellis)
About the Author
John Ellis is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has worked both as a TV producer and a Media Academic. In 1982, he was one of the first independent producers commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, making their Visions series through Large Door. He is currently Chair of Learning on Screen.