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Saturday, 2 November, 2002, 00:46 GMT
The ever-changing Channel 4
Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman
Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman: Perennial Countdown team

When Channel 4 launched on 2 November, 1982, it did so with a brief to do new things to television, and to make trouble amongst the TV schedules.

After the Channel 4 logo assembled onto the screen, the first face viewers saw was grinning Countdown host Richard Whiteley.

Viewers may have had to adjust their sets because of Whiteley's suits and ties, but the channel's first programme was not exactly the boundary-breaking television it had promised.

But the new kid on the terrestrial TV block did push boundaries in those early days - and throughout the following two decades.

Its unique talents were its factual programming and arts coverage. The Tube, which launched Paula Yates and Jools Holland onto an unsuspecting world, was one of their big pushes in that first autumn

 Brookside Close
Brookside was recently axed from its primetime slot after 20 years

The 1982 documentary The Animals Film, an exposť on vivisection, suggested the channel's claim to make cutting-edge factual programmes viewers could not find on other channels was not empty rhetoric.

Aside from Countdown, viewers could enjoy Crocodile Dundee actor Paul Hogan's Australian sketch show and dubious real life justice in The People's Court.

But they were also treated to the first of the widely acclaimed Comic Strip series, Five Go Mad In Dorset.

It was the latter programme - starring Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and the Young Ones cast - that helped cement the channel's reputation for breaking the best comedy talent in the UK.


There were the red triangle warnings for shows with strong sexual or violent content. There was British TV's first lesbian kiss in the channel's flagship soap Brookside, as well as the tongue-in-cheek magazine show Eurotrash.
French and Saunders, former Channel 4 comedy talent
French and Saunders got their break in 1982 with The Comic Strip

And it was Channel 4 who took a punt on a UK version of the Dutch reality show Big Brother - and saw audiences of over 12 million as a result.

It even managed to spice up Test Cricket - without getting rid of the soporific charms of Richie Benaud.

Twenty years on, the Saturday listings are not so much ground-breaking as steady-as-she -goes, including Star Trek prequel Enterprise and documentary The English Church.

But it also includes Africa Unmasked, the first in a documentary series looking at the poverty and social issues affecting the continent and typical of the factual series that Channel 4 is pushing in its anniversary press packs.

Losing its way?

Recent programmes such as the UK version of Big Brother, the role reversing Faking It and Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights have been big draws and critical successes.

But some think the channel has forgotten its challenging principles in an attempt to keep hold of viewers.

"Channel Four seems to have lost its way," says Radio Times editor Alison Graham.

"There are still gems in its schedule - Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights was one of this year's greatest treasures.

A recent Ulrika Johnson documentary has been badly received
Ulrika: The Trouble With Men has been slated by reviewers

"But what was once a questing and fearlessly controversial channel has become the home of tatty documentaries about sex or showbusiness fluff masquerading as serious journalism - Ulrika: The Trouble with Men and The Real Tom Jones spring immediately to mind."

Some blame recent problems on a ratings-driven programming policy that has led to accusations of dumbing down.

And the channel recently found itself paying out £700,000 an episode for The Simpsons - an expensive situation in a TV market struggling with low advertising revenues.

Channel 4 chief executive Mark Thompson
Chief executive Mark Thompson plans to revolutionise the channel

It is marking its 20th birthday relatively quietly, concentrating instead on the highlights in its autumn schedule.

New chief executive Mark Thompson says he is "in the middle of the biggest creative re-invention of Channel 4 in its history".

Radical steps

"We're making significant changes to the schedule and investing more money than ever before in new talent and new programmes of every kind."

Thompson says that by 2004 the programming changes should make it look "as if we were scheduling a new channel for the first time".

His brave new world at the beleaguered broadcaster needs a radical step to revive its fortunes.

Graham hopes Channel 4's revolution will lead to better programming. But it does not have the luxury of time.

"I don't think we should write it off just yet, though Five (formerly Channel 5) is gaining some significant ground," she says.

"Mark Thompson has already taken the decision to shift Brookside from its prime time slot, so we'll have to wait and see."

What a 40th - or even 25th - anniversary brings is anyone's guess.

Channel 4
Your memories from 20 years of programmes
See also:

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