Viewfinder Magazine

What was that channel for? Remembering the origins of Channel 4
by Simon Cross, Nottingham Trent University


In his 1979 McTaggart lecture to the Edinburgh International Television Festival, the distinguished TV producer Jeremy Isaacs (2005) spoke optimistically about Britain’s fourth television service that he said would galvanize the UK’s independent TV production sector widening opportunities for new and minority audiences. Isaac’s hopes for the fourth service were shared by a Conservative politician Norman Tebbit, though they had different interpretations of what it meant. This was brought home to Isaacs in 1986, when four years after the channel began broadcasting, he attended a Downing Street function. Isaacs had been Channel 4’s first chief executive from its inception in 1982 and he describes being admonished by Tebbit for broadcasting the wrong type of content by the wrong kind of people: ‘we were doing programmes about Northern Ireland and gays when we should have been covering golf or yachting’. In a retrospective commentary on the rise and fall of Channel 4 as a public broadcaster of distinction, Stuart Jeffries suggests the Conservatives used the 1990 broadcasting act (which forced Channel 4 to chase its own advertising funding) to take revenge on the channel’s ethos which so upset Tebbit. I want to revisit the circumstances leading to the creation of Channel 4 as a reminder that the founding impetus for the channel is the promotion of unheard voices and experiences. The current Conservative government’s plans to privatize Channel 4, with unknown consequences for programming content, ought to be a moment to pause and remember why it was necessary for it to be invented in the first place.

1970s Television: discontent and criticism

Channel 4 has no single point of origin though we can usefully point to a weakness in public broadcasting that led to proposals about how the fourth channel might do things differently. In the 1970s, TV documentary and current affairs programmes like Panorama and World in Action reached weekly audiences of millions, but there were concerns that while experts and political actors were allowed to speak for and represent themselves, other participants in these programmes often complained that the production team had not done their views and experience justice or had presented and contextualized them in ways that they objected to. Inspired by efforts in other cultural arenas to widen the range of experience and arguments, lobbying for a greater plurality of voices in/on television was gaining momentum from two directions. On the one hand there was pressure for change from disaffected BBC and ITV producers struggling to make programmes within the confines of the duopoly (of which more later), and on the other from critics in the new academic fields of media and communications who championed greater democracy in television (Bibby et al. 1979). Before Channel 4 was created to meet these demands, various experiments showed the need for a different kind of television.

Today, the experimental community TV cable channels which briefly served places like Swindon, Milton Keynes and Greenwich are remembered as curios from a television past, but they are better understood as a precursor to the push to make the fourth TV channel a radically different platform for voices and experiences ignored by mainstream television. A BBC website labeled these 1970s TV experiments 'bizarre' asking ‘did viewers really want to watch pub darts and barber shop singers’? Surviving footage replete with wobbly camera angles and hazy focus implies they did not but is not the whole story. In his sympathetic report on community television for the British Film Institute, Peter Lewis (1978) noted how the community cable TV sector saw their amateur productions offering something radically different from professional broadcasters. They shared a conviction that communities (including communities of interest) and minorities were being ignored by mainstream TV producers (Nigg and Wade 1980). By contrast, advocates of community cable channels argued that their ‘warts and all’ alternative TV programming was a form of social advocacy in which people being ‘documented’ were not the objects of a film-maker's interpretative vision, but the subjects of their own vision.

The community cable channels were not the only experiments in widening access to public broadcasting. As I noted earlier, TV producers were increasingly aware that the social changes of the 1970s were being ignored by the major broadcasting institutions and that a gap had opened between their TV productions and the complexities of contemporary social life. The BBC addressed these concerns using its second channel as a platform to experiment with public access formats. Thus, around the same time that the first community cable channel began broadcasting at Greenwich (in July 1972), BBC2’s experimental access programme slot Open Door (1973-83) also began transmission. It was an acknowledgment by the BBC that its output needed to be more in touch with views, lifestyles, and community backgrounds different from those of the broadcasting professionals. Open Door was made by the BBC’s newly created Community Programmes Unit (CPU), and it gave non-professionals opportunities to use cheap but affordable broadcast-quality technology to make documentaries about their lives or issues that mattered to them and to retain editorial control over the final cut. Of course, the discontent and criticism about British television in the 1970s was not resolved by the community cable channels or experimental access formats. By the end of that decade, it was clear the planned fourth channel would need to be radically different in structure and content.

Channel 4: extending voices

The arrival of Channel 4 in 1982 was a milestone in the history of public broadcasting. In particular, the channel was a model of public broadcasting adapted to the complexities of a multi-ethnic society eager for programmes extending not just the number of choices available but the very range of choice. From the outset, Channel 4 set about extending the diversity of broadcast output by serving the representational needs of minority ethnic and other groups including the 15-30 age group. To this end it experimented with programme forms and commissioned programmes from independent producers (among them the youth-oriented soap opera Brookside (1982-2003) set in Liverpool and made by Mersey Television). The approach taken was to try to rectify the centralized conditions under which existing BBC/ITV programmes were being produced, which in practice had made it very difficult for independent programme-makers to get their work broadcast on the BBC and ITV networks. In the 1960s and 1970s this was brought home to television programme-makers (including such BBC/ITV TV luminaries as Alistair Milne, Robert Kee, as well as Jeremy Isaacs) who had set up independent production companies only to discover how hard and financially unrewarding it was to work outside of the duopoly (Harvey 1994). Their dissatisfaction with the duopoly was shared by Anthony Smith, a former BBC TV producer and during this period a researcher at Oxford University.

Brookside (Dir: Various) Channel 4, 22nd May 1998

Brookside (Dir: Various) Channel 4, 22nd May 1998

Ever since the BBC had been awarded a second channel in 1962 (BBC2 began transmission in April 1964), there had been a general understanding that the government would allocate the vacant fourth channel. The argument (made most consistently by Conservative MP’s) was that ITV should run the channel to restore ‘balance’ to the duopoly. This convenient assumption was comprehensively challenged by the wider debate on the nature and purpose of the fourth channel. Anthony Smith proposed a National Television Foundation which would commission programmes from ‘authors’ (Lambert 1982). In Smith’s view, such a Foundation would allow for a new production base camped outside the impregnable walls of the duopoly. His idea was that the fourth channel would act as a ‘publishing’ (and not a production) house for independent programme-makers who could give expression to the cultural needs of minority groups neglected by mainstream television. That these producers could tap into Britain’s minority ethnic communities was seen as important for creating an alternative televisual space for widening public discourse and representation.

Smith’s publishing analogy struck a chord with many of those involved in debate about the purpose of a fourth channel. More importantly, Lord Annan’s committee on the future of broadcasting (set up by the 1974-79 Labour government) were sympathetic to his proposals, in particular his suggestion for creating a new TV channel geared for minority audiences and interests. Consequently, Smith’s frustration with the duopoly was evident in the Committee’s 1977 report recommending an Open Broadcasting Authority (OBA) which would operate as an electronic publisher of material provided by independent programme-makers. Although the OBA plan was later rejected by Conservative Home Secretary, William Whitelaw, who favoured control by the IBA, the idea of developing an independent production base outside of the duopoly found favour amongst those in government charged with bringing the new channel to life. The IBA version of Annan (and Smith) was broadly the model that the incoming 1979 Thatcher government adopted in its parliamentary bill of February 1980.

Operating as a publisher of programmes, Channel 4 gave expression to a newly identified set of cultural needs, while adding to the commercial armory of the independent television sector. A flourishing independent sector has been crucial to Channel 4’s interpretation of its statutory duty to give expression to new themes and otherwise unheard minority views and values. As such, it is probably the last substantive extension of the British public service broadcasting principle. By showing independently produced programmes, often made in close relationship to locales and intended primarily (though not exclusively) for groups and communities, the hope was that television could be opened to the challenge of hearing new voices and experiences essential to a properly functioning democracy. Indeed, Jeremy Isaacs made it clear that he saw Channel 4’s great promise as being ‘one in which all kinds of people would be able to put their point of view’ (Docherty et al. 1991: 18-19). This commitment to diversity is a defining feature of Channel 4’s original core project of correcting inequalities in mainstream broadcasting’s (mis)representation of the disadvantaged and marginalized.

Right to Reply (Dir: Various) Channel 4, 24th May 1998)

Right to Reply (Dir: Various) Channel 4, 24th May 1998)

Whether Channel 4 has been wholly successful in this endeavor is a moot point. That it has tried to do this is unarguable. Its relative success in giving expression to the ‘new pluralism’ of the 1980s affected the whole ecology of British broadcasting, extending the range of voices on television. One notable aspect of the channel’s attempts to voice the tensions of the 1980s (tensions involving a broad range of social and cultural changes) has been its accessing of what we might call “strong opinion”. Through formats such as viewers forum Right to Reply (1982-2001; and the only programme ever made by Channel 4 rather than commissioned outside), or promotion of ‘dissident voices’ in groundbreaking current affairs like Diverse Reports (1984-1987), Channel 4 established the notion that TV programmes can express ‘directly’ stated right- and left-wing views while rejecting complaints it would upset the established body politic. Indeed, the representation of ‘strong opinion’ was interpreted by Jeremy Isaacs as a key element of Channel 4’s remit. This approach was within Anthony Smith’s original vision for the fourth channel; that it should function according to a doctrine of openness to expression rather than the bland and neutral ‘balance’ characteristic of established channels. By challenging the received notion that ‘argumentative’ programming should revolve around two contrasted points of view Channel 4 broadened public debate in British broadcasting. In our own politically polarised times, it is a reminder of the vital relationship between television and citizenship.

Concluding remarks

The contribution that Channel 4 as a cultural institution has made through its remit to provide “innovative, alternative content that challenges the status quo” has sometimes been overshadowed by moral policing of its content. From tabloid outrage in its early years at its supposed promotion of pornography through groundbreaking soap storylines about lesbian romance to more recent complaints about its ‘anti-Conservative’ news agenda, Channel 4 is periodically vulnerable to attack by critics of public broadcasting. It is not alone, of course. But while the BBC is buffered by its status as the nation’s broadcaster, Channel 4 is more vulnerable to attack from those who not only misunderstand its ethos and funding structure but also its historical purpose in extending diversity. Boris Johnson’s culture secretary Nadine Dorries recently showed her ignorance of Channel 4’s funding model wrongly telling a culture select committee that the channel received public funding; a remark showing how little she really knows about what the channel does and how it does it. So long as it remains a public broadcaster there is optimism that it will continue to support regional broadcast centers and experiment in forms and genres that widen the register of public discourse on television. There is currently some hope that Channel 4 may not after all succumb to the latest efforts to privatise the channel but its enemies, if unsuccessful, will regroup and continue to threaten the UK’s thriving independent TV production sector. If they are successful, then British public broadcasting will be dealt a fatal blow from which it will not easily recover.

About the Author

Dr Simon Cross is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Journalism and Media at Nottingham Trent University, UK.


Bibby, A., Denford, C. and Cross, G. (1979) Local Television, Piped Dreams? Milton Keynes: Redwing Press.

Docherty, D., Morrison, D.E. and Tracey, M. (1988) Keeping Faith? Channel Four and its Audience. London: John Libbey.

Isaacs, J. (2005) ‘Signposting Television in the 1980s: The Fourth Television: The James Mactaggart Lecture 1979'. In Franklin, B. (Ed.) Television Policy: The MacTaggart Lectures. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Harvey, S. (1994) ‘Channel 4 Television: from Annan to Grade’ in Hood, S. (Ed.) Behind the Screen: The Structure of British Television in the Nineties. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

Lambert, S. (1982) Channel Four: Television with a Difference?, London: BFI.

Lewis, P.M. (1978) Community TV and cable in Britain, London: BFI.

Nigg, H. and Wade, G. (1980) Community Media. Community Communication in the UK: Video, Local TV, Film, and Photography. Zurich: Regenbogen-Verlag Zurich.