Channel chopping

HAS Channel 4 lost its way? The channel, which turns 20 today, was once seen as a haven for controversial, intelligent programming and foreign movies that viewers simply couldn’t see anywhere else.

Now it increasingly looks more and more like the new ITV - mainstream through and through - with it’s reliance on ‘populist’ (read: rubbish) documentaries, Graham Norton (who has not so much jumped the shark as is to be seen skipping merrily over a shiver of them five nights a week), a seemingly endless line of Big Brothers and an increasing reliance on American imports.

The recent White Teeth notwithstanding, C4’s domestic drama output hasn’t been much to write home about either. Brookside - for years the best soap on TV, now a shadow of its former self - has been axed from its prime time evening slot and looks set to disappear altogether next year.

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Indeed, Brookside is not the only thing facing the chop. The channel is preparing to cut up to 200 jobs - around 20 per cent of its workforce - with savings in overheads to be ploughed back into programmes. Earlier this year the station posted a loss of 21 million, its first ever financial loss.

Ratings success stories such as Big Brother have been dampened by headline grabbing failures. The Big Breakfast replacement RI:SE has yet to capture the interest of the public, while the repositioning of king and queen of daytime TV Richard and Judy after they moved from ITV is haemorrhaging viewers and unlikely to be continued next year.

Channel 4 is currently at a creative crossroads. The once-derided Channel 5 has now caught up with it when it comes to commissioning intelligent documentaries, scheduling better movies and buying impressive American imports such as The Shield and Crime Scene Investigation.

Kevin Lygo, former head of entertainment at Channel 4 and now director of programmes at Channel 5, insists that Channel 4’s "normal high standards have slipped" due to a "lack of confidence". It’s hard not to disagree.

Many industry commentators say Channel 4 has lost its way and is suffering an identity crisis. Television’s ‘enfant terrible’ created to innovate and shock has weathered puberty and has become staid and mainstream as the years have progressed.

As the channel turns 20 today you might reasonably expect any TV broadcaster to celebrate it’s 20th anniversary with some form of retrospective programme. C4, however, seems intent on studiously ignoring its own birthday.

The channel that launched such innovative programmes as The Tube, The Comic Strip Presents. . . , The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross, Friday/Saturday Night Live and Brass Eye, and bankrolled many an excellent movie through it’s Film Four arm is ‘marking’ its birthday with the umpteenth re-run of tiresome WWII sequel Force Ten From Navarone. Errr, cheers for that.

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New chief executive Mark Thompson knows he has to make changes - and quickly. "The Channel was created 20 years ago to do new things in television and to make trouble," he says.

"Two decades on, the best way of marking our birthday is by rolling up our sleeves and doing just that. Finding and backing new ideas and new talent, making new waves - and that’s what we’re doing.

"The days when you could make safe choices, when you could just commission Fame Academy with a bit of this and a bit of that and instantly get a colossal audience are gone. It does not work like that," he says.

Thompson admits that C4 did "slightly lose focus on its main channel" mainly due to the attention lavished on launching its new digital entertainment channel E4 in 2000. E4 is now seen as one of the most successful launches of a digital service ever. Within a year of its launch it became the number three entertainment channel, behind Sky One and UK Gold.

However, the backbone of E4 is the American imports. Actually, this is one of the main terrrestial channel’s few remaining saving graces - smart buy-in’s such as The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under and Smallville are just about keeping the channel’s tattered reputation as the home of cutting-edge programming alive. "We are trying to go back to basics and reinvent Channel 4 for the future," claims Thompson. "Right now we’re in the middle of the biggest creative re-invention of Channel 4 in its history. We’re making significant changes to the schedule and investing more money than ever before in new talent and new programmes of every kind."

Luke Satchell, online editor of industry website Broadcast now, welcomes a return to the values of those who originally set up the channel. A move away from innovative programme formats towards big name celebrities has compromised the station’s previously unique character, he says.

"Over the last four or five years its programming has seemed less innovative. It has ploughed an awful lot of money into talent rather than innovative show formats, which was always its strong point. For instance, a lot of money was spent on attracting Richard and Judy and Graham Norton, but neither show is doing particularly well in the ratings.

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"Spending a lot of money on a talent like Graham Norton for a five-night-a-week show is hard to justify when you cannot get the good guests five nights a week. A chat show needs good guests and this has not been the case. And it seems it is now turning its back on Richard and Judy - no-one will talk about the show and how to progress it."

The job cuts are, Satchell says, inevitable, to combat the losses incurred under former chief executive Michael Jackson. With Jackson at the helm Channel 4 spent millions of pounds on extra staff, Film Four, E4 and hours of expensive American imports.

Satchell explains: "In the beginning Channel 4 was very successful, but Jackson put a lot of that money into new ventures which never really paid off. Channel 4 got too big for its boots. It was created to offer an alternative to the other three channels, but it became a bit too mainstream as it has tried to grow its share of the ratings."

But despite past failings Satchell remains optimistic that new chief executive Thompson has the ability and acumen to turn it round.

Thompson’s far-reaching cuts, designed to free up revenue for programming, are a necessary part of the channel’s recovery, Satchell says.

"This had to come. Not enough money has been spent on what was going on the screen. The cuts will allow money to be ploughed into new screen formats." Axing Brookside is also a necessary step when viewing figures plummeted, he says. "You have to drop stuff that is tired and old."

Despite taking its eye off the ball of innovation, Satchell says Channel 4 has had some flashes of genius. "The first series of Faking It [job swap doc] was absolutely superb. It was a brilliant new format for a programme which won a whole host of awards," he says.

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"But now it [Faking It] has gone too formulaic and looks totally staged. It seems like they’re reproducing the format, but they don’t want anyone to fail. It has got too much of a feel-good atmosphere about it. But the future is still bright. I think Mark Thompson will turn it round. He knows what he’s got to do."

It would appear so. Last month C4 announced that next year’s 430m programme budget was the highest in its history and proudly showed off a selection of major new dramas for the forthcoming year.

They include Shameless, by Clocking Off and Cracker scriptwriter Paul Abbott - an eight-part series follows the growing pains of two 15-year-old brothers and their older sister in Manchester.

Other bright hopes include two series from Britain’s most critically successful TV producer Tony Garnett (Cathy Come Home, Kes, This Life, Between The Lines, The Cops). Garnett is producing a series about four nurses "dealing with life, death and institutional lunacy" in Leeds, and the prison-set Buried.

However, other mooted programmes in C4’s 2003 schedule indicate that it may be a while before the Channel fully returns to its former glory. Born Sloppy, sounds like a recipe for disaster - a music show hosted by ladette Sara Cox from a pub in east London. There’s a docusoap (oh joy!) based in a beauty salon and The People’s Book of Records, which will offer "an alternative set of world records" including, apparently, the answer to that age old question "How long can you stare at a dog’s bum?" Ahhh, the heart fair races in anticipation!

Oh well, at least they’ll still have The Sopranos.