Channel 4 pre-1993 oddities

For its first 10 years, Channel 4 was not a commercial broadcaster in the real sense. It was owned by the IBA and paid for by the ITV companies. They could help recoup the cost by selling advertising locally on Channel 4. ITV regional companies played out the ads on the fourth channel – the signal from Channel 4 went through each ITV company first on its way to the transmitter.

The arrangement meant that, editorially, Channel 4 could be innovative and serve minorities. If a programme got low ratings it was no disaster.

Although Channel 4 was not ITV 2, it did gradually assume some of ITV’s public service responsibilities. The single most obvious example was schools broadcasting. It led to the situation where an ITV-branded service was being shown on a channel normally keen to explain how and why it was not ITV 2.

The pre-1993 funding model brought with it some technical oddities that the majority of viewers would’ve been oblivious to. An interesting discussion in this TV Forum thread has prompted a few thoughts from me:

  • Every ITV station manually played out the ads, taking the cue dot (generated by Channel 4 in London) as definitive. Union agreements would have prevented total automation even where it might have been possible.
  • It was exceptional for any ITV region – other than Thames/LWT – to do cross-promotional announcements on Channel 4. Thames used their duty announcer, so no effort was made to fit the “Channel 4 style” as such. Presumably this was done with Charlotte Street’s consent, as to do otherwise would be a threat to Channel 4’s sovereignty?
  • STV put out a party election broadcast after network closedown one night, for legal reasons. There’s no technical reason why it could not have gone out earlier, so this was an editorial/legal decision. Channel 4 did not show PPBs but did show election broadcasts. In practice this meant any tailored Scottish broadcasts by the UK parties were not seen but obviously it creates the issue of fairness to the SNP. Not a problem with S4C in Wales of course and perhaps there was different guidance for Northern Ireland where none of the UK parties were standing? In theory, Channel 4 could have allowed STV to opt for 5 minutes – say for a filler programme or a planned early exit from Channel 4 News. But this was Channel 4’s call.
  • The ETP-1 IBA/Channel 4-branded test card was played out by Channel 4 Pres. The IBA may have mandated the use of ETP-1, but it was played out from Charlotte St. Prior to the launch of the channel in November 1982, there may have been occasions where ETP-1 was played out from an IBA ROC (Regional Operations Centre), accompanied by tone. Where music accompanied ETP-1, it was played out by Channel 4 in Charlotte St. The same music was also often heard during programme intervals/break fillers (only seen by viewers if the ITV regional company did not insert commercials).
  • The original version of ETP-1 transmitted from Charlotte St did not have horizontal lines above and below the ‘IBA:CH 4’ text. During pre-launch tests, a version with the horizontal lines would occasionally appear, accompanied by tone – this presumably was generated at an IBA ROC. The Charlotte St version of ETP-1 later included the horizontal lines.
  • The IBA may have insisted on daily quotas of ETP-1 – otherwise, I suspect Channel 4 would’ve gone with blanket teletext in-vision during non-programme hours. At a guess, the IBA may have felt it was helpful to show the test card as, presumably, the trade may have sometimes needed to adjust aerials after a new Channel 4 transmitter opened or some people may have had difficulty tuning? Otherwise the same editorial arguments apply as did at the BBC, and as far as I know, there was no big backlash when Ceefax In-Vision started to fill the whole day. Indeed the trade would have been grateful for a BBC Two signal all day (prior to autumn 1983, it was common for BBC Two transmitters to be switched off after Play School, if there were no programmes again for 2 hours or more). On Channel 4, after regular afternoon programmes started in autumn 1984, 4-Tel/Oracle On View was shown for 45 minutes each hour from 10am onwards. ETP-1 was generally shown for the last 15 minutes of the hour and from 1.45pm until the first programme (usually 2.30pm). I’m pretty sure Channel 4 would’ve preferred non-stop teletext.
  • Channel 4 was not affected by the ACTT union agreements that placed restrictions on working practices at ITV companies. Nor was it subject to what now seem like pedantic IBA rules on things like start-ups.
  • Channel 4 seemed to have more leeway with the IBA. Occasionally it transmitted programmes shot on non-professional formats, which would have got an ITV company into trouble.
  • Engineering Announcements were either sent on a tape to Charlotte St or fed up a line to Charlotte St. But they definitely came via Channel 4 Pres and the IBA did not take control of the network.
  • After 1987, ETP-1 and music briefly came back on between Engineering Announcements and ITV Schools. The morning when Oracle was shown until 9.27am was unusual. Ordinarily, ETP-1 was always shown in the period before start-up.
  • Schools programmes remained ITV’s total responsibility right up until 1993 – they were merely transmitted by Channel 4. Hence the notable black space at 11.58am or so to make this distinction clear, and the fact there were two intervals after 9.25am once The Channel 4 Daily began. The schools situation was clearly agreed between ITV, Channel 4 and the IBA.
  • There was to be no burden whatsoever to Channel 4 from schools programming – hence ITV provided all the interstitial material, including where necessary, announcements. However the playout sequence was assembled at Channel 4 (i.e., programme comes off air, interval animation fades up, programme title caption added, etc).
  • Local schools programmes in Scotland and Northern Ireland were played out from the Channel 4 suites at STV and UTV, just like the ads – and not by Channel 4 itself. Not sure if Grampian played out separately or not? Before 1987, it was the usual arrangement where STV would play a programme out and network to Grampian or vice versa. Each company did its own intervals around them – this was very obvious as Grampian had its own copy of the countdown clock but STV just kept the interval slide on.



PICTURED: Channel 4 ETP-1 test card. SUPPLIED BY: Online. COPYRIGHT: IBA.

Posted by Andrew Nairn

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