One of the most depressing things about the debate over the future of Channel 4 is the deliberate rewriting of its past.
If you were to read comments from some of the channel’s current supporters or marketing blurb from the channel, you might imagine it had been blasting out endless youth programmes and deliberately edgy material 24/7 since 1982.
Of course its story is much more subtle. Programmes for younger people were always an important part of the mix. The music programme The Tube caught the zeitgeist, The Max Headroom Show was hugely innovative and Network 7 set a standard for youth TV.
And there was the edgy material too. Brookside in its very early days controversially went to places that an 8pm drama perhaps shouldn’t have but soon settled down into a remarkable chronicle of 80s Britain. Meanwhile the achievements of Film on 4 and The Comic Strip were legendary – much to the annoyance of middle England.
But there was so much more to Channel 4 then. Its mission was, basically, to do anything you wouldn’t normally get on ITV.
It was home to youth – but also home to the magazine for the elderly Years Ahead. Arts programme Without Walls, documentary strand Secret History and science series Equinox were amongst the most thought-provoking things on TV. International cinema, opera, essays on political opinion – the list goes on.
And if you weren’t keen on The Word then Bremner, Bird and Fortune may have been more to your taste.
All in all it was a very quirky and very special channel – it tried to appeal to everyone some of the time. It is almost hard to believe now that a channel like this enjoyed no direct public funding.
Channel 4 still has important public service functions but if you judge the channel purely by its schedule – not just its work within the industry to develop talent on and off camera – it is a very different beast.
If the channel is to avoid privatisation, it needs to convince those who loved it in the 80s and 90s that it is still really distinctive.
Apparently the fact The Steph Show comes from Leeds is in itself something special. Out of London production is, of course, vital economically and can make a subtle difference to a programme’s character.
Will this argument wash with the viewing public though?
In case you hadn’t noticed, BBC Breakfast comes from Salford, ITV ran This Morning from Liverpool for years and Birmingham hosted several BBC daytime magazines.
And the channel’s biggest hit Great British Bake Off started life on BBC Two, then moved to BBC One.
It would be interesting to know what some of those heavily involved with Channel 4 in its first 15 to 20 years think.
There is no point in hankering for the past – the world today is very different. A channel that is simply an eclectic and random mix is not for the 2020s.
But if Channel 4’s ownership is to change, please remember what if once tried to do for all discerning viewers – not merely under-35s.
The irony is the younger people advertisers crave are turning away from linear TV. This is why Channel 4 is increasingly looking to online.
And some of those who were once, miraculously, both the ABC1s and 18 – 35-year-olds advertisers sought, are today the opinion-formers of society. They may find themselves loving the memory of the Channel 4 of old but unable to make a heartfelt case against a sell-off today even if they are still aware of its good work.
PICTURED: Channel 4 headquarters, London. COPYRIGHT: The TV Room.
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