British Programming Service

The fourth British channel arrived on the scene in 1982 after extensive debate between proponents of public service television on the one hand and of commercial broadcasting on the other. The timing was crucial, for the commercially funded ITV network was starting to outstrip combined BBC1 and BBC2 in terms of audience numbers. Channel Four (C4) was a compromise between the two principles: it was to be financed by advertising revenue from the existing private companies, but governed independently from them, with a brief to provide minority and complementary programming to the three existing channels. It would make none of its own programming, but rather "publish" work produced by outside production companies, and indeed, a host of small independent producers sprung up in its wake, peddling their ideas to a group of "commissioning editors". It would be innovative in program styles and working practices and would find new audiences.

Piloted in its first years by Jeremy Isaacs, a veteran of documentary and current affairs television production who had given a noteworthy speech about his vision at an Edinburgh Television Festival, C4 saw its role as being "different, but not too different". It would stake its claim to being "alternative" by pioneering material new to British television (access, community, youth and minority programs), by catering for as-yet-untelevised sports and hobby enthusiasts (cycling, basketball, chess), and by giving new life to threatened genres like documentary, arts features and independent film. Risk-taking would include the first hour long TV news and the first overtly "committed" current affairs magazines (The Friday Alternative). Dubbed "Channel Bore" by early critics put off by earnest late-night intellectual discussions, and afflicted with occasional censorship battles over certain programs that appeared overly partisan (toward the left), the Channel saw its audience share gradually creep upward--though it never attained the 10% share it sought in a national television landscape as yet untouched by cable and satellite. Associated with yuppie and liberal values, it boasted a 90% satisfaction rate among its selective audience.

Channel Four did not neglect popular genres, creating its own early evening serial (Brookside, Liverpool-set, remains its most popular program), and launching Max Headroom and other avant-garde--or at least less classical than existing--series. It showed quality series imported from the United States like Hill Street Blues and Cheers and launched some of Britain's alternative comedians (Comic Strip Presents...).

But its main success has been its feature film production; Channel Four revitalized a moribund British film industry. It invested in a third of the feature films made in Britain in 1984, financing a number of low budget films like Stephen Frears' My Beautiful Launderette (shot on 16 mm in 1985) and co-producing medium budget ones like The Draughtsman's Contract (Peter Greenaway) and Dance With A Stranger (Mike Newell). "Film on Four" under David Rose wooed writers (David Hare) and directors (Mike Leigh) from the BBC, and attracted new ones like Neil Jordan and Derek Jarman. In contrast to the BBC, C4 policy has been to address contemporary issues and use experimental storytelling. It has backed a number of projects aimed at the European art film market: Wim Wender's Paris, Texas, Agnes Varda's Vagabond, Andre Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice, Neil Jordan's The Crying Game. "Film Four International" showcases independent film-makers from around the world.

Courtesy of Channel Four

In 1988 chief executive Isaacs stepped down and was replaced by Michael Grade, formerly Controller of BBC1 and scion of a family distinguished in commercial entertainment. Despite fears that he would be forced by commercial pressures to take the channel down a vulgarian path Grade proved a populist in the best sense of the word, importing more U.S. shows (e.g. Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne, ER), although the gamble on American content did not always pay off (Tales of the City). The 1990 Broadcasting Act refined its remit to be "distinctive", that is to include proportions which are European and are supplied by independent producers. More importantly, the act spun C4 off from the ITV companies by giving it the right to market its own advertising. Funding, like distribution, became a problem: Channel Four has been so successful at marketing itself that subsidy is flowing the other way, as a share of its profits instead reverts back to the ITV companies' coffers--38 million pounds in 1994.

Channel Four's 1993 audience share of 5.4 % reflected a quality market for advertisers (BBC1 had 19.9% at the time). But despite its international reputation as a model for innovative television, some critics questioned whether it had indeed been a life-saving transfusion to the British film industry or even to the independent film and video sector, as many of the workshops folded, more of the commissions settled on a few strong production companies, and as BBC2 responded to C4's innovations. The inherent tension between the channel's public service and commercial objectives seemed to tilt increasingly toward the latter.

- Susan Emanuel


Isaacs, Jeremy. Storm Over Four: A Personal Account. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1989.

Pym, John. Film on Four. 1981-1991. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

Stoneman, Rod. "Sins of Commission." Screen (London), Summer 1992.

Wyver, John. "The English Channel." American Film (Washington, D.C.), July-August 1986.


See also British Television; Film on Four