The history of Channel 4: how David beat Goliath

The long battle to create Channel 4 was an unequal one that pitted the public interest against giant corporate and political forces. Remarkably, the little guys won. 

Roger Graef
22 June 2016


Channel 4 headquarters in Horseferry Road, London. Philip Toscano / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved

People rarely have their dreams come true. Especially when they involve a major new enterprise in a well-established landscape, a huge cultural expansion of taste and propriety, and the creation of an innovative political and financial structure to make it work as intended. Yet that is what happened to launch Channel 4. In such a conservative country, with a Conservative government, and two long-established broadcasters occupying almost all of the available space, it was extraordinary. It was even more improbable given the two-decades-long insistence by ITV to claim the fourth channel as ITV2. Television sets built in the seventies had a button listed as ITV2. It was only the protests of Anthony Smith and others that saw it differently. Smith became the architect of the fourth channel in various iterations, expressed at length in a series of articles in The Guardian, and then on the Annan Committee. He made the dream into a proposition that could win support.

The support was to grow across the 1970s. A number of filmmakers, producers and journalists were increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, both in newspapers and television. Too many stories were spiked at the big newspapers, and television suffered from tight editorial control at the duopoly of ITV and the BBC. Moreover, strange as it may seem today with the proliferation of channels, with only three TV channels to air programmes, there was not enough space for other ideas outside the mainstream to be shown. That was the reason ITV had long planned to establish its own second channel. I had worked as a freelance for both the BBC and then for seven years at Granada during that period. There was a lot of frustration in both places. I felt strongly that there needed to be more space and diversity of programming and of suppliers on television. And more risk taking. In those days, the fledgling independent sector scrambled to get a handful of commissions, and the vast majority of filmmakers had to work for the two broadcasters or do corporates to make a living.

I was involved in a collection of independently-minded journos known as the Free Communications Group. The FCG published a monthly mag of stories and issues that had been squashed. As early as 1971 the television critic of Time Out, John Howkins, staged a conference at the Polytechnic of Central London in Oxford Circus. It was co-sponsored with the Free Communications Group, and packed with journos, programme makers, teachers, Bow Group Tories, Labour people, and other folk. The conference called for a fourth channel to be created independent of ITV. In ensuing years, the FGC and the aftermath of the conference led to the creation of the TV4 Campaign and Channel Four Group. Frustration mounted with each new tale of blockage or strong ideas and stories going unrecognised. But with ITV lobbying hard, we felt our chances of success were limited. So I was among the many independent minded television folk – most notably Michael Darlow, a young Michael Jackson, and producer Sophie Balhatchet – who took on ITV’s confident claim to that fourth channel space. But at the time it felt like we were David v Goliath.

That made it all the more astonishing when Willie Whitelaw gave a speech at the Royal Television Society Conference and followed it with the Broadcasting Act of 1980 that created Channel 4. It seemed to adopt almost all of our objectives. Moreover, it created a brilliant funding mechanism that freed it from selling its own advertising. That was the brake on creativity that hindered ITV. Remarkably, in an unequal political battle against vested interests, the good guys backing the public interest had won!

That’s what made the original Channel 4 so precious and rare in the broadcasting world. It was not a state institution, nor was it a for-profit commercial one. Its remit was to be original, educational and innovative and to make programmes for audiences not already served by ITV. It also called for a significant amount of programmes by regional itv companies and independents. This was a wonderful and inspiring challenge. But the question was, could we rise to it? Were there enough indie filmmakers and producers to deliver this?

ITV bosses felt confident that there would not be. They presumed that the lion’s share of the new channel’s programming would be made by them, even though the Act discouraged that. Jeremy Isaacs gave the MacTaggart Lecture at the Edinburgh TV Festival that year and while welcoming the channel and the challenge, he made clear he too shared the view that independents would be minority players while ITV would make most of the programmes. That was disturbing but not surprising. Jeremy was a highly respected director of programmes at Thames Television But it was later to be held against him by the newly-appointed Channel 4 board when looking for its CEO.

I was surprised to be invited to join that C4 board by the director general of the Independent Broadcasting Authority Sir Brian Young, a former headmaster of Charterhouse. I soon found there was a special culture of deference to the executive and to the chair that inhibited British board members from speaking out. Because I was an American, and a New Yorker to boot, I had no such inhibitions. Over time, my fellow board members gave me space to say the unsayable.

But the invitation to join the Channel 4 board came at an awkward time. I was intensely busy making the Police series for the BBC.2 So I reluctantly declined. But Brian Young did not give up. He called me in to his office on a Saturday. Alone in the IBA headquarters in Knightsbridge, this kindly patrician ur-Englishman looked at me from across his desk and said: ‘I asked you here on a Saturday because I wanted to speak frankly, and hope you will reconsider.’ I was touched he was so keen.

I feared that if I did accept, I told Young that I might well be bullied into silence, or at least outvoted regularly by the number of ITV executives on the board. ‘We’ve thought of that,’ he said. ‘And we’ve appointed thoughtful and flexible people to those posts. Brian Tesler of LWT, Bill Brown from STV, and David McCall from Anglia.’ These names, plus the presence on the board of Tony Smith, the original thinker behind the fourth channel, and the energetic presence of Richard ‘Dicky’ Attenborough, was reassurance enough. So I agreed.

We were a motley crew, with only Tony Smith and I having recent first-hand knowledge of programme making. When we set about choosing a director of progammes, a number of names came up. Jeremy Isaacs was deemed by many board members too confident he would get it, because of his Edinburgh speech setting out his plans to run the channel and his caution about independents. So to make it a real contest, others were being considered. I was asked to approach Brian Wenham, then running BBC2, to ask him to apply. He told me he wouldn’t. Wenham said he would take the job only if he was offered it without competition. No dice.

Charles Denton, then running Central Television and a supporter of adventurous programming, was also approached to apply. But he had just renewed his contract and honourably felt it would be disloyal to consider it. John Birt, then Director of Programmes at LWT, did apply. With a strong track record and a brilliant, incisive mind and manner, he was a serious alternative to Jeremy Isaacs. And he had the backing of his boss, Brian Tesler. But he came for his interview with a surprise that took us all aback: several years of programming hour by hour (prepared for him by Sue Stoessl at LWT). Given the channel was intended to be flexible, responsive and innovative, the board all felt his presentation seemed singularly inappropriate. By contrast, Jeremy’s approach was the most flexible and adventurous. He had thought a great deal about ways of meeting the remit, and by now had expanded his expectations of the independent sector. Tony Smith and I were especially keen he should get the job.

But the chairman had never heard of him, despite Isaacs’ high esteem in the industry, especially for the major historical achievement of The World at War. Jeremy was a real visionary. The board’s role was to support his vision in ways that protected the channel.I had proposed we support Jeremy by creating a deputy director of programmes (the job went to Paul Bonner). Jeremy wanted to be CEO and director of programmes but over his objections, we devised a managing director role to handle admin. I had met Justin Dukes who was MD of the Financial Times, and persuaded him to apply. He got the job.

So the good ship Channel 4 set out in due course, with a characteristic Jeremy gesture. He had been interviewed by the editor of The Guardian’s Women’s page, Liz Forgan and was impressed. So despite her total lack of TV experience, he put her in charge of almost everything: news, current affairs, documentaries and more. I knew Liz from playing tennis. And I rated her journalism. The following years saw the channel grow in confidence, and the board generally supported the risks which came to us. Given the current ecology of broadcasting, and its preoccupations with ratings, it is worth recalling that the original slate included programmes which are hard to imagine being commissioned now by anyone. Whatever You Want, with the mercurial Keith Allen, pushed the boundaries of taste on each outing. An all-day full-length showing of The Orestaia, in masks. Pina Bausch being given a whole evening for her hypnotic dance from Sadlers Wells. A regular programme on Ireland, another on trade unions, and a series on black issues, and the Third World. There were many others on the borders of what was known as ‘taste and decency’. Many programmes did not draw viewers, but met savage criticism from the Daily Mail.

But it was a heady time, and I am extremely proud to have been a part of it. 

This is an edited extract of a chapter from WHAT PRICE CHANNEL4? Edited by John Mair, Fiona Chesterton, David Lloyd, Ian Reeves and Richard Tait. Published by Abramis. Price £19.95. Copies are available to OurBeeb readers for £15.00 from [email protected]

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