Media Lifeline: Imported shows on Channel 4

US series such as Friends and Frasier have led to big audience figures but also accusations of dumbing down.

1987: Michael Grade succeeds Jeremy Isaacs as the chief executive of Channel 4 and begins moving it from its rather quirky, left-field positioning towards the mainstream - not least through the astute acquisition of quality US programming, notably, in the late 80s and early 90s, the Cheers sitcom and its Frasier spin-off. Critics round on Grade, accusing him of dumbing the channel down.

1994: But C4 really hits pay dirt when it snaps up Friends. It keeps the first run rights for only two years, with Sky1 outbidding it in 1996. But C4 is content to give the show its first terrestrial airing, only a matter of weeks after episodes are shown on Sky.

1999: And C4 shocks the market by biting back and paying a record £125 million to win the auction for a number of plum US series, including Friends and ER - much to the chagrin of Sky, the main counter-bidder. Friends becomes central to C4's new pay-TV strategy as it prepares to launch E4. But it's clearly a risky business because the winning bid represents a huge chunk of its programming budget.

2004: C4's growth strategy begins to unravel under its latest chief executive, Mark Thompson. His regime comes to an end, perhaps symbolically, in the same year as the final episode of Friends is broadcast to C4's biggest audience of the year.

March 2010: Following the departure of Thompson's successor, Andy Duncan, C4 had announced, back in February, that it was to stop showing repeats of Friends. A month later, a report published by the Government's Culture, Media and Sport committee criticises C4 for its lack of commitment to public-service programming, citing schedules including US comedies such as Friends.

Fast forward ...

April 2012: Following its merger with Five, which is owned by the mainstream European broadcasting giant RTL, C4 is finally freed from any pretence to public-service TV. It celebrates with a special series of Celebrity Big Brother based in a set made to look like a New York apartment, in which the celebrities in question are the actors formerly known as the cast members of Friends. Jennifer Aniston wins because she's clearly worth it.


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