With all the speculation, misinformation, politicking and general bullshit flying around today with the release of TV regulator Ofcom’s blueprint “for sustaining and strengthening public service broadcasting (PSB) for the next decade” I’d like to take a moment here to highlight Ofcom’s recommendation for Channel 4:
Create a strong, alternative public service voice to the BBC, with Channel 4 at the heart
And pick up an article by Roy Greenslade, widely respected Professor of Journalism at London’s City University, writer for The Guardian and Evening Standard, and man about Donegal (believe he’s been spotted in The Bridge Bar, Ramelton where my wedding reached a satisfying, musical conclusion on Day 3). In tonight’s issue of the Standard (which I picked from the bin in East Finchley station – does Alexander Lebedev have any idea how few people part with actual cash money for it?) Prof G wrote the following insightful article:
Ofcom risks making a pig’s ear of C4 if we lose gourmet selection of quality TV
Pig Business - a Channel 4 documentary
“On Monday evening I attended the preview of a Channel 4 documentary called Pig Business. It was a fine piece of work, a mixture of passion and compassion that raised all sorts of disturbing questions about factory farming, agri-business and globalisation, not to mention airing concerns about public health and the environment.
You can make up your own mind on 3 February, when it is screened on More4, but — even if you disagree with the polemic — it has to be seen as an extraordinary project because it was filmed over the course of four years by Tracy Worcester. After the showing there was loud applause for her and tributes from several speakers, including Zac Goldsmith and Chrissie Hynde. There was acclaim too from Tim Sparke, managing director of the path-breaking broadband TV documentary company Mercury Media, but he broadened his praise and struck a particularly topical note.
“If ever we need a demonstration of Channel 4’s commitment to public service broadcasting,” he said. “Then this is it.”
As C4’s chairman, Luke Johnson, and chief executive, Andy Duncan, peruse the Ofcom report released this morning that outlines how the channel will be funded in future, it is important to keep in mind the value of its output.
I know this is the channel of Big Brother, and that we are currently being assaulted by another instalment of a Celebrity Big Brother, a title that — given the crop of inmates — surely breaches the Trades Descriptions Act. But they are programmes that ramp up viewing figures, thereby attracting essential advertising revenue and enabling the broadcasting of serious public service broadcasting (PSB) content.
There is so much to appreciate about C4, not least its contribution to film, arts, drama and documentaries. There is a Channel 4 ethos, a distinctiveness, that sets it apart from both its commercial rivals and the publicly-funded BBC. I happen to be an avid viewer of Channel 4 News because it deals in some depth with the most important news stories of the day. It treats viewers as grown-ups and, significantly, attracts a young audience that clearly appreciates that fact. It’s a sort of early Newsnight.
Consider also the very different documentary and factual strands such as Dispatches, Cutting Edge and Unreported World. The latter, screened 20 times a year in peak time, takes viewers to stories in parts of Africa, South America and south-east Asia that never appear elsewhere.
Sure, the audiences are small. But the whole point of PSB, and of C4’s remit, is to widen the TV horizon. There is no point in sticking to a safe mainstream, agenda. Other broadcasters do that. There is a mix, with populist factual programming running alongside more esoteric stuff, but it works. C4 also commissions programmes that take risks or challenge our preconceptions.
Take the eight-part series now showing on Sunday evenings, Christianity: A History. It started off two weeks ago with a superb and counter-intuitive presentation from Howard Jacobson on Jesus the Jew. It was some of the most watchable TV I have seen in a long time, intelligent without being in the least bit pompous, provocative without any hint of bombast.
Turning to C4’s contribution to film, who can deny the virtues of a company that backed movie-makers such as Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting and Shallow Grave); Steve McQueen (Hunger) and Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Six Shooter)?
But let’s stop the tour here. The point of the exercise is to illustrate what we stand to lose if C4 is not adequately funded in the coming years. It is also to underline the point made by BBC executives, even if through gritted teeth, that rival PSB output is healthy for our society.
I realise the over-riding importance of C4 every time I call up the list of documentary channels on Sky and discover the endless loop-tape of what has rightly been dubbed a choice of sharks or Nazis.
What distinguishes C4’s factual output is that it rarely, if ever, stoops to the formulaic TV that populates the digital depths. That is one reason why I have been opposed to the notion of a merger with Five, a commercial channel that would erase the individuality of C4.
I have never seen the point of Five since its launch in 1997 and, going on the viewing figures, neither can most of the nation’s viewers. It is remarkable that a populist channel that screens wall-to-wall entertainment attracts only 4.6% of the total audience. Yet C4, with so much of its PSB programming specifically aimed at minority audiences, manages to get a 6.3% share.
I can well understand why the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, has advocated a C4-Five merger. He wants to protect the BBC’s licence fee and preserve the income from its own commercial arm, BBC Worldwide.
While I was thinking about C4’s dilemma I realised that the Pig Business documentary offered several relevant metaphors. In its current state C4 is a free range broadcaster, offering good meat that satisfies the appetites of its customers. If it is overly constrained, whether by tighter budgets or by an uncomfortable accommodation with a rival, there will be a reduction in both the quantity and quality of its meat.
Factory-farmed TV is junk food for the masses. C4’s programmes, by contrast, are a gourmet selection for niche audiences. We lose them at our peril.”
Last night while I was writing this post Channel 4 was winning the Broadcaster of the Year Award at the Broadcast Awards.
It also picked up awards for:
Best Documentary: My Street [a wonderful film]
Best Documentary Series: The Genius of Charles Darwin
Best Single Drama: Boy A
Best New Programme: Gordon Ramsay Cookalong Live
Best International Sales: Come Dine With Me
To ram the point home, this lunchtime (GMT) this year’s Oscar nominations have been announced and Channel 4’s Film4 have received 12 (yes, 12!) nominations:
· Film editing
· Original score
· Original song – “Jai Ho”
· Original song – “O Saya”
· Best picture
· Sound editing
· Sound mixing
· Adapted screenplay
· Original screenplay
· Original screenplay