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BLOG: Policies of the Past: Channel 4

It’s election time and politicians on all sides are out in force to win your vote in one of the most unpredictable political contests in a generation. As the debate intensifies, our chief executive Caroline Norbury has been taking a look back at some of the most significant policy interventions to have made a real difference to the UK’s creative industries over the last few decades.

Sometimes I ask myself how an island a quarter the size of France, and which in 2014 ranked 76th on the world happiness index, manages to belt out a stream of international creative brands and products that dominate the world? It’s incredible that of the top five global film franchises, three are based on works by UK writers ('Harry Potter'; 'Bond'; 'Lord of the Rings'); that one of the world’s most feted actors, Kevin Spacey, chose a British Theatre Company to expand and nurture his creative spark; and that UK developers are behind some of the world's most iconic and critically acclaimed games in the world - from Sam Houser at Rockstar to the innovative team behind 'Alien Isolation' - Creative Assembly.

Whilst the natural creative talent of the British people is a major contributing factor in helping the UK’s creative industries become the envy of the world, it’s not been the only one. Government policy has played a hugely important role in aiding and facilitating the success of our creative industries to date. From introducing sector specific tax breaks to the education curriculum, broadband infrastructure and piracy laws – our policymakers make huge strategic decisions that shape the creative business environment that affects us all.

Thanks, in part, to a series of successful policy interventions, the creative economy has come a long way in the last few years, but we mustn't be complacent. There’s still a lot more that we can do to help create the conditions for the UK’s creative industries to continue on their winning streak and fend off increasing competition from abroad. The decisions of the next government, whoever gets into office, will be crucial in determining what happens next.

So, with that in mind and with the general election campaign at boiling point, I thought it would be useful to take a step back and see what lessons today’s policymakers can draw from the great policy interventions of the past. In this first blog of the series, we’re going all the way back to 1982 and the launch of a new and distinctive Pubic Service Broadcaster – Channel 4.

Channel 4

One of the most successful policy interventions on behalf of the creative industries has undoubtedly been the establishment of Channel 4.

It was an Act of Parliament in 1982 that formally paved the way for the creation of the broadcaster and, at the time, it was the first new TV channel to launch in the UK since ITV over three decades earlier. 

From the very start, Channel 4 was set up by the government with a specific public service remit to cater for diverse and minority tastes. It also had at its core an obligation to contribute to the strength and diversity of the UK’s creative economy. 

Over the course of 30 years, the broadcaster and its public service remit has been at the heart of turning a handful of marginalised and idealistic independent programme makers into arguably the most dynamic and creative force in independent television production anywhere in the world.

How is it financed?

Unlike the other public service broadcasters – BBC, ITV, and Channel 5 - Channel 4 is a publicly owned but commercially self-funded not-for-profit broadcaster. All the profits that are generated by the channel’s activities are directly reinvested back into the delivery of its public service remit.

How has it made a difference?

Channel 4 is also unique in that it operates as a publisher broadcaster – it doesn’t actually have any in-house production teams. All of the content it airs is required to be produced externally. This model has had a huge impact on the UK’s independent production sector over the years, opening up commissioning opportunities and helping creative talent to develop and take risks.

Channel 4 currently works with around 300 creative businesses across television, film and digital media every year and is a major investor in creative skills and talent development across the UK. This commissioning structure has played a huge part in helping many of the UK’s independent production companies grow to a significant, in some cases global scale, and reach a record total of £2.8bn in revenues last year.

Championing Diversity

Championing, representing and catering for diversity has remained central to Channel 4’s public service obligations from the very start - from showing the first ever lesbian kiss in British television to commissioning the first long-running black sitcom, Desmonds, Channel 4 has been a diversity pioneer.

This commitment to diversity extends behind the screen as much as on-screen. Channel 4 recently published the  360° Diversity Charter, outlining its diversity strategy moving forward and the broadcaster is also committed to diversifying where it commissions its content from. Along with the BBC, Channel 4 has a duty to invest a minimum amount of its budget on content made outside of London. This amounts to millions of pounds in commissions for independent companies throughout the nations and regions and that investment has been vital in helping to support the UK’s wider creative economy.

Some Key Moments

  • Channel 4 began scheduled transmissions at 4.44pm on 2 November 1982 with the first episode of the game show Countdown. Original presenter, the late Richard Whitely, kicked off the programme with the words; "As the countdown to a brand new channel ends, a brand new countdown begins."
  •  Alternative morning show The Big Breakfast, broadcasting live from a former lock keepers' cottage, launched in 1992 and ran for a decade. 
  • Liverpool-based soap opera Brookside hit the headlines in 1994 when Channel 4 broadcast TV’s first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss. The scene was later broadcast to the world when it featured in a montage for Danny Boyle’s Olympic Games opening ceremony. 
  • The reality TV epidemic arguably kicked-off when Big Brother launched in 2000. Millions of viewers tuned in to watch the events of day 35 unfold as ‘Nasty Nick’ was confronted for his fellow house mates for trying to influence eviction nominations. Following his ejection form the House, Nick was dubbed “the most hated man in Britain”. 
  • Controversy followed the broadcast of Britain’s first public autopsy for 170 years in 2002. Experts at the time claimed the autopsy was illegal but Channel 4 went ahead anyway. 
  • Video on demand service 4OD launched in November 2006 – a year before BBC iPlayer. 
  • In November 2009, Channel 4 launched a week of 3D television, broadcasting selected programmes each night using stereoscopic ColorCode 3D technology. 
  • In 2012, Channel 4’s broadcast of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony attracted a peak audience of 11.2 million views – beating the BBC’s previous peak best of 2.8 million views during the Beijing Paralympics. 
  • This year, Channel 4 broadcast Drugs Live – a Home Office-approved, NHS-supported trial of cannabis use.

What's Next?

The whole broadcasting industry is now almost unrecognisable to how it looked in 1982. The sector has changed rapidly over the last few years, driven by the digital revolution, declines in key sources of funding like advertising and the globalisation of media markets.

Regulator Ofcom is now looking into how broadcasters like Channel 4 and the BBC can continue to remain relevant in the digital age and deliver on their public service duties in an ever changing world. Ofcom will soon be making a number of recommendations to the next government, shaping not only the future of the UK’s unique PSB system but also its wider creative economy. 

33 years after it launched, is there a creative industries policy intervention of similar imagination and impact as Channel 4 today? 

Click here to watch Channel 4 Chief Executive David Abraham discuss the broadcaster’s unique public service remit and its future during the annual MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh International Television Festival.

Follow Caroline Norbury on Twitter.

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