Channel 4: grow up
By offloading its only good stuff on to More4, Channel 4 is ghettoising TV for grown-ups.
‘More4 is the love child of Channel 4, with one finger on the pulse and another defiantly raised to convention’, said Channel 4’s self-lionised publicity blurb for its new ‘adult entertainment channel’, More4. Declaring to ‘reclaim territory for free-thinking, open-minded grown-ups who want to be challenged as well as entertained’, More4 could be said to be a welcome alternative to programmes on, say, celebrity colonic irrigation. Can More4 stop the small screen rot? Or is it really an acceptance that Top 10 reality makeover programmes define the limits of terrestrial TV?
Twenty-three years ago the remit and ambition of Channel 4 was to be an open-minded and edgy broadcasting channel. At times it succeeded (early Brookside, decent documentaries); at times it was worthy and dull (a strange preoccupation with Albanian farmers); and at others it was painfully self-indulgent (anyone remember Tony Benn’s debate show Burning Embers?) There was, however, a petulant adolescent temper to the channel’s art-school sensibility. And compared with the other terrestrials, it was always notably bedazzled and fixated on a meejah idea of ‘yoof’.
Unfortunately, as society became increasingly preoccupied with youth, and less so with adulthood, so did Channel 4. It steadily began to shake off its radical social worker image and embraced the dreaded triumvirate of camp, kitsch and irony. By the late Nineties, its Top 10 retro-fests shifted the channel towards the lightweight and banal. Yet the format was to prove worryingly influential, as smirking history-lite programmes on pop cultural froth also appeared on other terrestrial channels.
It wouldn’t be the last time that Channel 4 would send television in the wrong direction. In 2000 it spawned an ugly monster in the form of summer-long game show, Big Brother. Once again nearly all the terrestrial channels followed suit and devised variations on goldfish-bowl TV. Channel 4’s commitment to the crass and the just plain wrong has continued apace in recent years. Inexplicable programmes on property, Jamie Oliver PR stunts and Wife Swaps pepper the viewing schedule like a rash of bad acne. Even its documentaries, usually with dumbly literal titles such as The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, lean towards the prurient and the sensational. Is there much to distinguish Channel 4 from its supposed low-rent counterpart, Five?
Yet Channel 4 was still noteworthy in one important aspect: quality American imports. It was the first channel to spot the groundbreaking output of HBO and treated British viewers to Sex and the City, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. Surely a channel that even spawned Graham Norton couldn’t be all bad? Well, yes it is. Time and again, the greatest TV programme going, The Sopranos, was aired inexplicably late. Likewise, HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm was inappropriately relegated to sister cable channel, E4 – probably to ensure that How Clean Is Your House? had a primetime slot on the main channel.
This is probably the real purpose of launching More4. No longer interested or committed to quality TV, Channel 4 can offload its HBO imports and devote its entire terrestrial time to the paltry and puerile. More4 may ostensibly be ‘raising a finger to convention’, but who exactly defined its mind-numbing limits? Step forward Channel 4. Rather than More4 reversing the trend, exporting the only good programmes will consolidate this brainless trend even further. More alarmingly is how More4 has re-cast the important business of adulthood as merely a minority niche audience.
For much of television’s history, a clear idea of adulthood defined the parameters and quality of its programmes. Outside of children’s TV, adulthood was the standard that guided a wide, diverse output. Above all, it didn’t have to be said: all TV programmes were made with adults in mind. Whether it was documentaries, dramas, comedies or current affairs, directors pitched the content solely at grown-ups. A channel that explicitly states its adult credentials reveals just how infantile and teenage mainstream television has become.
This isn’t so much pandering to what audiences want, but pandering to a prejudice of what audiences are capable of understanding. And this false outlook is so firmly entrenched that it still influences More4 itself.
A few weeks before More4’s launch, Channel 4’s advertising campaign gave the impression that it was launching a soft-porn venture. It seems even when trying to be sober and serious, the spirit of Graham Norton gets the better of them. And judging by its scheduling so far, More4 also lacks the balls to air programmes at a more reasonable time. Once again The Sopranos is going out at the near deadzone time of 11.45pm. If Channel 4 really did want to have ‘one finger on the pulse and another raised against convention’, it would be better off axing the dross and landing The Sopranos and Curb Your Enthusiasm in primetime terrestrial slots – or trying to make homegrown programmes as good as those. That would be the grown-up thing to do.
Neil Davenport is a sociology lecturer and freelance writer.