'Channel Snore' to an alternative voice

The Making of Channel 4
January 14, 2000

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Most of us in at the beginning believed that the battle for a different and distinctive fourth channel was won the day Jeremy Isaacs was appointed chief executive. And because of an amendment to the enabling legislation, the service was actually called Channel 4. There was a financial umbilicus to ITV, but Isaacs, who represented the very best of ITV programme-making, would inspire the great leap forward, serving all the United Kingdom's concurrent minorities. So we believed. So did he, and his account of those heady years, Storm Over 4 , has long been the accepted record of his achievement.

The Institute of Contemporary History has used one of its fascinating witness seminars to provide a different take on the early years. These have produced minor squibs in the past, but this one is a genuine rocket. The power unit is an explosive memoir from the late Edmund Dell, the lugubrious ex-cabinet minister appointed first chairman of Channel 4. Dell broods over the triple battle in which he believed himself to be engaged: to make Isaacs accountable; to prevent "regulatory capture" by the Independent Broadcasting Authority; and to allow the arguments for the channel to sell its own advertising to be heard.

Dell was always a grumpy soul. He spent too much time refuting the gibe that he had no television set and knew nothing of the feral world of broadcasting into which he was plunged. He wanted John Birt as chief executive and thought Isaacs was foisted on him. He was furious that Isaacs introduced executives and advisers to Charlotte Street in a thoroughly non-referential way. Liz Forgan, famously, interviewed Isaacs for The Guardian women's page and came away with the best job offer in broadcasting.

"I said, do you realise that I never watch TV. I hate television. I loathe and despise it, it's a poisonous medium about which I know and care nothing. 'Perfect', he said, 'just what I want'."

Forgan was, as she recalls here, to "drive Edmund Dell crackers". For the first months the channel's exuberant amateurism drove the press crackers too, with cheap headlines about "Channel Snore" and "Channel Swore". Dell may have despaired in private, but he kept his thoughts to himself. The ingenuity of the channel's funding arrangements (which had eluded us on the Annan committee, but came fully formed from Willie Whitelaw and his Home Office advisers) meant that there was never the kind of abject investor panic that destroyed breakfast TV experiment TV-AM.

The funding arrangement, however, was seen marsupially by ITV and by joint regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). Annan had wanted a separate regulatory framework, the OBA, precisely because of the fear that the IBA would be unable to distinguish between the needs of its charges. The ITV companies wanted the lion's share of programming commissions on the new channel. The IBA, as its chairman Lord Thomson so grandly told Dell, regarded Channel 4 as its "wholly-owned subsidiary".

In those days, when the SDP seemed to have the run of public appointments (Dell's own deputy was the glamourous SDP recruit Dickie Attenborough) Dell and Lord Thomson did not get on. The issue was Dell's epiphany over the funding formula and the sale of advertising.

Dell, as he relates here, came to accept recommendation 14 of the Peacock Report, "that Channel 4 should be given the option of selling its own advertising time and would then no longer be funded by a subscription from ITV companies". On this, Dell disagreed with his board, with Channel 4's staff and with his own successor, Attenborough. Their view was shared by most of us who made programmes for the channel. If Channel 4 became free-standing, we thought, it would be forced into a cut-throat competition with ITV for viewers. Standards would be relaxed and in the search for viewers the remit would not be sustained.

It has not worked out like that. Privatisation, so plausible in a demutualising age, has not yet been a temptation, to win over either governments or key staff. Dell was right, and I hope that our acknowledgement of that fact eased his grumpiness as he shares this book with his old antagonists, and some of the commissioning editors who typified the Isaacs approach - Forgan, Naomi Sargant and John Ranelagh. Of course, the channel has changed. It no longer lives off the land, but in the air, in the preening corridors of Horseferry Road. People stay too long, sometimes aping the other broadcasting outlets from whence they came.

No one now comes from The Guardian women's page. But Channel 4 remains distinctive, in style and output. And two decades on, I cannot cross its threshold without remembering the opening night and the way that fine drama Walter made our viewers see disability afresh, as the channel has done for so many other groups in our plural society.

Phillip Whitehead MEP is a television producer. He was a member of the Annan committee on the future of broadcasting in the 1970s.

The Making of Channel 4

Editor - Peter Catterall
ISBN - 0 714 6 4926 0 and 4485 4
Publisher - Cass
Price - £37.50 and £16.50
Pages - 192

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