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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 14:38 GMT
What now for Channel 4?
By media correspondent Torin Douglas

Channel 4 is nothing if not controversial - and not just because of its cutting edge programmes, like the Brass Eye spoof documentary on paedophilia.

That show prompted more than 1,000 complaints, intervention by government ministers and an on-screen apology.

The real controversy at present is over whether Channel 4 has become too commercial and lost its public service raison d'etre - to provide the type of challenging programmes that could not otherwise be found on commercial television.

Brass Eye
Brass Eye: Controversy hit the headlines
It is a question Mark Thompson - with his years of experience at the BBC - is well-placed to address.

Channel 4 is a network of huge contrasts It dominated this year's BAFTA awards, winning 11 of the 25 prizes.

Reputation

This was thanks mainly to its comedy shows Graham Norton and Ali G, the drama serial Longitude, and the phenomenal Big Brother, which not only brought huge audiences (in Channel 4's terms) but also pioneered interactivity through the Channel 4 web-site and digital channels and mobile phones.

It has reinvented cricket coverage very successfully, giving it a multi-cultural edge, to the chagrin of the BBC which used to have a terrestrial monopoly of the game.

But much of its popularity and reputation depends on its bought-in American comedies and dramas like Friends, Frasier, Sex and the City, The Sopranos and The West Wing - which other networks would happily have screened.

It has become the most brand-conscious of all the networks, to the despair of Channel 4's founding chief executive, Sir Jeremy Isaacs.

Big Brother
Big Brother was a phenomenon
He wrote in the Independent that it was obsessed with the young audience, the marketing department's overwhelming desire to " target and reach a demographically clearly defined audience - the 18-35 year-olds - and single-mindedly commission a bulk of programmes that suits their tastes, however laddish or yobbish."

And yet it has just signed up Richard and Judy from ITV, still relies heavily on Countdown for its afternoon ratings, and has allowed the once-powerful Big Breakfast to wither on the vine.

Recession

Above all, it has got into the new media business, investing huge amounts of money in its subscription channels FilmFour and E4 (a youth entertainment channel, to which it gives the first runs of its hot American properties) and its websites.

That may have made sense when the dot-com bubble had yet to burst and digital TV was growing fast, though even then some complained it was taking its eye off the main ball - Channel Four itself.

But in a recession, with advertising revenue dropping through the floor, those ventures look increasingly marginal and risky. It has already started cutting back, before its new chief executive was even named.

The question for Mark Thompson is what he sees as the organisation's priorities.

Richard and Judy
Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan: Challenging TV?
He too has been a new media pioneer - developing the BBC's multi-channel digital strategy which will lead, next year, to the launches of BBC Four, two new children's channels and - if Tessa Jowell approves - BBC Three.

But he has also built his career on serious programmes - editing Panorama and the Nine O'Clock News, and heading the factual department, before running BBC Two.

Many feel his first job will be to restore Channel 4's reputation for the serious.

See also:

30 Mar 01 | TV and Radio
Channel 5 turns four
01 May 01 | Business
Big Brother, Ali G boost C4 revenue
16 Nov 01 | TV and Radio
Favourites abandon C4 race
24 Jul 01 | TV and Radio
BBC man 'tipped' for Channel 4
27 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Channel 5 boss leaves
15 Oct 01 | TV and Radio
Michael Jackson: Media man
21 Nov 00 | Entertainment
British TV's Emmy glory
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