What Went Wrong With… Channel 4 (In The UK)?

Graveyard with Channel 4 logo by What Went Wrong With

Channel 4 has sold out; plain and simple. Back in the 80’s and early 90’s, Channel 4 was synonymous with alternative perspectives and subversive ideas. It was a breath of fresh air in an otherwise stagnant line-up of outdated variety shows, dull soaps, and clichéd sitcoms. While other channels revelled in white, heterosexual, and upper class elitism; Channel 4 made an effort in creating programming for a multitude of minority groups. They were a broadcaster which helped give a voice to the voiceless without stereotyping or patronising them. Channel 4 used to be cool.

Depending on your age, you will have fond memories of shows such as the youth-oriented “Network 7” or the energetic and brash “The Word”. You may remember the surreal genius of “Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out” or the sedate yet fun “Desmond’s”. Even common British TV staples such as the breakfast show, the game show, or the soap opera seemed daring and different on Channel 4. “The Big Breakfast” with it’s bright, bold, and noisy aesthetic made for a welcome change from the dull alternatives on the other side. Shows such as “The Crystal Maze” and “GamesMaster” made the after-school tea-time slot something special. And anybody who remembers Trevor Jordache’s body under the patio, knows what a distinctly contrasting soap “Brookside” was when compared to the contrived offerings from ITV and the BBC.

But somewhere in the mid to late 90’s, Channel 4 began to lose focus in what their brand represented, and became the very antithesis of what the Channel had originally stood for. These days, Channel 4 is a dreary mess. It has become home to throwaway television such as “Come Dine With Me”, “Embarrassing Bodies”, and “Alex Zane‘s Rude Tube”. It’s schedule for more than a decade has been filled with reality shows, list countdown shows, and cookery and home improvement programmes.

What now resides on Channel 4 is the equivalent of a once great performer, face-lifted and out of touch, desperate to recapture their youth. Every now and again in an attempt to forget the dross of weekly panel shows and exploitative documentaries it now spews out; Channel 4 tries to lament in the fresh and raw anarchy it once represented. In 2011 they offered us a “Street Summer” and in 2012 an all night “House Party”. But the very next day it was back to the tedious Gordon Ramsay, the dismal Kirstie Allsopp, the monotonous Jimmy and Alan Carr, and a return to stereotyping Travellers.

The original “Fourscore” signature tune was retired in 1992 and the original “4” logo was axed in 1996. Once these idents were buried, it seemed the very soul of Channel 4 died along with them. From this point onward, Channel 4 slowly became a buyer of humdrum foreign-made shows such as “ER”, “Lost”, and “Homeland”, and became a creator of jejune reality game shows like “Big Brother”. Over the space of just a few years, Channel 4 became one of the most soporific broadcasters in Britain. No more “Absolutely” or “Sean’s Show”, no more “The Chart Show” and no more “Sticky Moments With Julian Clary”. Despite it’s occasional foray into originality with shows such as “Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place”, Channel 4 does not want to change a money making set-up for the sake of credibility. After all, it wasn’t Darcus Howe’s “Devil’s Advocate” or Chris Morris’ “Brass Eye” who brought them their greatest viewership; it was “Big Brother”. So why would an avaricious corporation change a formula which generates consistent ad-revenue, regardless of whether it has them airing the most mind-numbing nonsense known to man?

Channel 4, these days is so blind with greed, that it stays well clear of anything untested. It sees fit to suppress what could potentially be a great show; by allotting it a late-night or early-morning slot. “Freshly Squeezed” for example, could have been a great “Big Breakfast” replacement, had it been extended beyond it’s 30 minute running time. But oh no; we must have more repeats of “Frasier” and “Everybody Loves Raymond”, we don’t see enough of them.

Channel 4 is now an unfocused mess of a broadcaster, branching out into any and every direction in an attempt to make as much money as possible whilst trying to woo all the various audiences it has lost over the years. At some point in the last decade, a group of yes-men elected to have all the trash Channel 4 has accumulated the rights to over the years, and have it compartmentalized. All the bullshit is now scattered across the EPG for your inconvenience. Film4, I assume is for fans of DVD bargain bins, E4 for the “I wish I was still young” 30 year old market, More4 for the dull yet slightly educated, 4Music for fans of lame Pop music and reality re-runs, and 4Seven for anybody with memory loss and no taste. Channel 4 is now a Jack of all trades, master of none.

One thing Channel 4 needed to realise is that you cannot rely on the talent of one person, or indeed one generation to keep a cool channel cool. Just like the once edgy Tango had sponsored “The Word”, Tango is now a Saccharin filled, literally “soft” drink, Terry Christian makes lame Radio broadcasts and Katy Puckrik reviews perfumes. Relying on a bunch of decision makers and entertainers from their prime to their middle-age is unsustainable. Finding talent is a hard job, and it can’t be left to a generation who cannot tell that they themselves are now lacking it. A generation born in the late 50’s and early 60’s who are blinkered by their upwardly mobile lifestyle; buying property and concocting feasts to impress their stuck-up social circle. Just because they want a “Grand Design” in which they can watch box-sets of “The West Wing”, does not mean the rest of us are impressed by a bunch of dull, rich, family-orientated centre-right pricks and their tired-arse televisual tastes. The once youthful and edgy talent grew up, got rich, and sold out.

Channel Foe.

3 replies »

  1. Your very observant article could be applied to the whole of Britain with more or less the same timeline. What happened was Blairism, the homogenisation of politcs and hobbling of art and creaitivity by treating them solely as commodities. Blair matched the Tories by becoming one, just as did Blunkett and Straw,

    If only they applied to real market economics to war. Customer surveys would surely reveal the biggest consumers would not want buy it, or subscribe to it, given the choice. Only those with a financial interest would recommend it with gusto.

    The massive changes i had witnessed led me to leaving the country in the late 1990s.

    Massive competition creates paranoia. In a profession fearing innovation and freshness leads to a potential loss of advertising revenue, to err on the side of caution is the best path to take. The more you become like the others the less threatening and cosy the market place becomes. Hundreds of channels, so similar, you can’t instantly tell where you are, like you could with C4. Like the banks, there is no competition and there are no rules not worth breaking.

  2. Tragedy- I used to be so proud of channel 4!
    Now its an embarrassment. And it doesn’t even work properly online- how ironic, in its dash to be seen of the ‘people’ its completely neglected the technical necessities…

  3. Since I was born in the mid 90s, I have only known Channel 4 from what they have aired from the 2000s up to this point. Channel 4 has, in my eyes, been a glorified documentary/reality tv channel with the documentaries that came everynow and then and reality tv crap such as come dine with me and big brother. As a network, they are not any different from the likes of BBC and ITV. More4 is boring and soulless. 4Music is just like MTV and VIVA, full of weak music and shit reality tv shows. E4 is not that bad and good shows can still make it on the channel, but it is hurt by the endless repeats of Ugly Betty and Frasier and the Made in Chelsea shite. The same goes for Film4. Hollyoaks remains one of the wackest shows on television with its clished storylines and lame acting. There isn’t much variety on TV today. There are good shows out there, but they are few and far between. Most shows that are promoted usually end up exclusive to suscription channels or Netflix.

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