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The history of channel 4: a twenty year gestation

When Channel 4 was born in 1982, it owed its conception to creative visionaries who had been lobbying, briefing and cajoling for nigh on two decades. 

Channel 4 headquarters in Horseferry Road, London. Philip Toscano / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reservedThere are many ways to recite the history of Channel 4 and many people whose actions and arguments provide the pivotal points in its coming to pass. That it came into existence at all is amazing, given how vested interests operate in the UK and given the forces stacked against innovation and against pluralism within the reigning institutions. And yet, one day in 1982, a national television channel went on the air fed by some 200 new enterprises that had sprung into existence seemingly overnight.

The origins of Channel 4 lie in a public debate or, rather, a widespread discontent, which arose during the later 1960s of which the key word was ‘access’. With the establishment of BBC2 in 1964, television moved to the centre of cultural life in the UK. The medium was no longer just a source of popular entertainment and daily news. It had come to provide opportunities for serious new drama and serious debate. It fed hungrily off the new movements in politics, music, literature, not to speak of the new ‘underground’ youth culture. ITV, too, was starting to play a more determined part in reflecting the ideas and controversies of that era of global rebellion.

But television did not present itself as a medium which people could use for them-selves, as they could the medium of print. Now that the moving image dominated, and yet there existed no way of entering the seemingly locked worlds of BBC and ITV. Television was simply what these organisations did. The new youth culture of the 1960s was finding its way into all of the media of communication, including television. Many people had things they wanted to express for themselves, and ways they wanted to entertain and causes they wanted to argue for. The rules of formal balance inhibited the flow. The duopoly of BBC and ITV was itself at the centre of the stage. To have a career in television you had to excel in their terms. Many of the new cohort of programme makers – not to speak of the writers, directors, artists and performers they worked with – felt somehow dispossessed. The frustration created the demand for ‘access’.

In 1970 the Government opened up a debate on the use of the fourth channel, the last available set of wavelengths which covered the entire kingdom and the Minister of Posts and Telecommunications announced a preference for an ITV-2, for giving the vacant channel to the network of regional companies which between them provided the country’s single commercial channel with its monopoly of advertising; to be fair, the Pilkington Committee, a decade before, had said that if ITV reformed it should one day be granted the fourth channel. It had indeed reformed and its executives believed they were owed a channel in which they could provide a service of programmes complementary to its main channel, just like the BBC. Some, however, believed that a second commercial channel should compete with the existing one rather than complement it. The BBC’s second channel had been demonstrating the benefits of complementarity.

To many, television technology itself demanded that the making of programmes be locked up inside large companies and regulatory authorities. All the people in the country who knew how to make television programmes had learned how to do so in one of these regulated monopolies. There hung over ITV-2 the sense of inevitability and over all rival plans a sense of insecurity.

One other idea lay on the table, that the Open University should run the vacant channel, but that did not have much political weight behind it. Then Peter Fiddick, features editor of The Guardian, asked me to write a piece developing further this idea of a more open kind of channel. In April 1972 I sent him a piece which tried to put flesh on the idea, by advocating a National Television Foundation (NTF) run like one of the great charitable Foundations. A group of editors would select and commission projects from people who sent in suggestions: an outsourced channel without any of the paraphernalia of a television authority, without a programme-making staff, even without its own studios. Its funds coming from a diversity of sources: commercial, academic, sponsorship, charity, industry. It would not try to compete, but to add, experiment, inspire.

A few months later Sir Hugh Greene, a retired and very great BBC Director General, gave the annual Granada Lecture in which he said that the NTF should be given part of the channel, with the rest given to ITV. The channel would be run by people who were trustees rather than governors and their job was to supplement rather than to compete, to stimulate and spread rather than to balance, to represent the changing interests of the audience and programme-makers. Above all – in the cultural ferment of the times – they were also to listen to interest groups and offer them time to say what they wanted to say. It seems rather obvious in 2016 but the bill of fare was novel in the 1970s.

Harold Wilson had set up the Annan Committee in 1970, to look into the fourth channel issue and many other broadcasting issues of the moment. Two months later he was out of office and Annan remained suspended until Wilson (after Edward Heath's four years at Number 10) returned to power in 1974; Noel Annan was re-summoned and his committee sat for four years. A very lively debate ensued. By this time it was clear there were many people and small companies able and eager to make programmes; moreover there were new technologies to help them.

But Annan added something of importance to the debate. His report in 1977 emphasised the value of the Broadcasting ‘Authority’ as a way of guaranteeing that editorial power was held at arms’ length from government, but could be reviewed publicly by Parliament from time to time. Annan recommended a form of the NTF which he called an Open Broadcasting Authority. This made all the other cultural arguments for a different kind of editorial approach to programming much easier to stomach, though the supporters of ITV-2, together with their regulators at the IBA, continued to demand the additional channel for ITV but they had became willing, keen even, for part of its airtime to be used by independent programme-makers; the IBA too had been mollified but remained very cautious about the financial practicability of large scale freelance production.

The vision of the channel moved on again when Jeremy Isaacs, later to become the first CEO of Channel 4 for seven rather glorious years, gave the MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh in 1979. As the programming chief of Thames Television he had leant towards an ITV-2, but now tried to describe the necessary ingredients of a new channel: he emphasised the vital catholicity of the programme content, which should not incessantly fight for major audiences against its three rival channels. He spoke of ‘a fourth channel that everyone will watch some of the time and no one will watch all of the time’. That echoed the feelings of pretty well everyone who wanted to see a change in television which would both reflect and encourage new needs within the public.

The 1979 Election was won by Margaret Thatcher. She was not yet, however, a Thatcherite. Her ‘ism’ would not take full shape for another couple of years. In the meantime the thinking of her government was still somewhat open on a number of policy fronts. Sir Keith Joseph was her guru. I contrived an invitation (through the good offices of the late Udi Eichler) to go to see him and argue the case for the OBA. After all, though it had been supported by the cultural left it would result in a new industry of small companies. They would compete. They would employ. They might even export. He nodded and agreed, with what appeared to be enthusiasm. He called in an assistant (the young Norman Lamont) and asked him to take up the idea and have it discussed within a wider circle of colleagues. He would talk to William Whitelaw, the new Home Secretary who was now in charge of broadcasting policy. I handed over a pile of material and departed.

It was in September 1979 that Whitelaw addressed the subject of Channel 4 and laid down the framework of what ultimately came to pass. In a speech at Cambridge he made clear his support for a non-ITV-2 which could take programmes from the existing commercial companies and regional companies but in great part from the new independent producers; editorially it was to be distinct from ITV even though it was to be placed under the umbrella of the IBA who should not, he adjured, permit the ITV companies to dominate it. Indeed, it was to provide opportunities for the smaller interest groups and have a distinctive approach to many different topics. The fourth channel was to constitute a third force in UK broadcasting. As some of us saw it, it would be the Research and Development arm of British television.

Channel 4 would start up in 1982 and a board of directors was appointed. In choosing us, the IBA went to great lengths to guarantee the necessary cultural diversity: a Tory lady and a former Labour Cabinet Minister, a local councillor, a trade unionist, a famous actor, a television filmmaker, an academic, a representative of the BFI (me), three figures from ITV, and others – all utterly different but all committed to diversity, all inspired by the cause of pluralism. Some weeks later the Gang of Four announced the formation of a new political party, the Social Democrats. One member of the Board looked round and exclaimed 'Look at us, we're all now in the SDP!!'

But look back from the channel’s programme schedule of 1982 over two decades and you can see, through the fog of argument, a national culture moving from an acceptance of closed hierarchies to a modern self-made pluralism, invading every corner of the society, following the directions to which economics and technology were pointing. Channel 4 has not been just the register of that change. It has also been an engine.

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 Richard@abramis.co.uk

About the author

Anthony Smith is Chief Executive of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. He is a former diplomat at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, and a director at the Department for International Development.


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