Whatever happened to Channel 4?
How did Jeremy Isaacs’ daring, visionary child of 1982 grow into the shameless, ratings-chasing harlot of 2014? The answer is obvious enough. Since television went multichannel, and advertising revenue was spread thinner than Marmite, innovative commercial television has all but died.
Forgive my harking back to a golden age, but there is good reason to see the franchise arrangements of mid-80’s as just that. Just four channels - two licence-funded, two commercial; two safe and populist, two risky and rule breaking. If anything, the commercial minority channel was the more daring - 4 regularly outshone 2. With only one competitor selling advertising time Channel 4 could charge fabulous rates, and so commission pretty much any program it dared. The lack of alternative channels guaranteed a large enough rump audience to still make it worth the advertisers’ while. And for the viewer, less ‘choice’ meant a greater chance of bumping into something unexpected, radical, even life changing. Or perhaps, better still, switching-off and sampling lived reality for a bit?
Such were the days. Nowadays poor old Channel 4 News can’t give its breaks away. You can often sail through the whole hour without suffering a real advert - most ‘adverts’ these days are just trailers for C4’s higher-rating programmes. It’s a small mercy considering that during the rest of the evening we can now expect four lengthy interruptions per hour, rather than the old standard of three.
And as for programme content, the sheer desperation is enough to make Raymond Briggs’ Snowman melt in embarrassment. The worst culprits fall under the umbrella ‘broadcasting for the enrichment of Davina McCall’. First, the game-shows, where members of the public who, oddly enough, also look, dress and talk like Davina McCall demonstrate their profound ignorance of anything of consequence. The noble objective, naturally, is to win a huge sum of money, perhaps enough to afford to bump-into Davina in Ibiza next summer.
In stark contrast there are the celebrity game-shows, presented by Davina McCall. It’s a simple but winning formula: unusual task + celebrity = television programme, and all the more affordable as in this context ‘celebrity’ refers to anyone who has ever walked past a TV showroom. It turns out that Derek and Clive’s ‘Celebrity Saviours’ and ‘Blow Your Tits Up’ were not satire, but premonition. This month we have ski jumping + Anthea Turner; next month toenail cutting + Bez.
Another growth area is ‘Voyeurs and Exhibitionists’. This got properly underway back in 2000 with Big Brother, hosted by Davina McCall. It's diversified hugely since then of course, one notable incarnation being the pseudo-documentary. This genre is particularly attractive to Channel 4 as it allows it to trade on its former reputation for daring themes and controversial social comment. But the veil is thin. More often than not they’re just "Fuck me, Doris!" stories, as one Murdoch drone famously put it, in reference to the reaction she hoped to provoke in her readers. We might call them ‘the shock of the “eeyew!”’. Earlier centuries employed a more honest term - freak shows.
So roll up, roll up, for exhibitionist gypsies, trans-genders, welfare recipients, victims of severe birth defects or bodily disfigurement, obsessive compulsives and the morbidly obese - all lined up before the inspecting eye of the ghoul-squad, tuning-in to express their compassion, feigned or otherwise, or as often, open disgust and contempt. If this seems unfairly caustic then one only has to ask, why now and why so much? Previous generations of viewers managed to get by without wall-to-wall footage of the bizarre and unfortunate. Even allowing for the possibility that some people do watch these programs in good faith, you can be sure that for the broadcasters the distinction is irrelevant. All that matters is that people are watching, and advertising space can be sold.
When advertisers can pick and choose where they advertise they will inevitably call the shots to the broadcasters. In fact there is only one shot they call - ratings, ratings, ratings. Humans being humans, the traditional themes of sex, violence and material wealth will always be the most eye-catching. So television ends up as a competition to screen the most hyper-sexualised, hyper-violent, hyper-gross television, placing the cheapest, rudest, meanest, strangest, brashest and vainest people centre-stage. As in a war of combat, in the war for ratings truth is a rapid casualty. Audience figures are sure to be low for facts that people don't want to hear. So if you want a documentary on global warming, for example, feel free to commission one based on falsified data. You can then frame the consequent furore as 'healthy debate' (the same tactic, we note, currently being employed to publicise 'Benefits Street')
Multi-channel TV is a disaster, presumably irreversible. This should come as no surprise. It was what every old-school television executive predicted. We only had to glance across the Atlantic to see the coming horror. Channel 4 is by no means the UK’s worst example - it is frequently out-barrel-scraped by license-fee-funded BBC3, using depressingly similar programme formats. But whereas BBC3 was always meant to be dreadful, to match the dreadful standards of its day, Channel 4 is a lost gem. It’s the clearest example of the degeneration that necessarily occurs when commercial television becomes the servant of the sponsor, rather than the other way round. We can safely assume that it wouldn't have been granted a license in the first place if its current output could have been foreseen back in 1982.