Media Forum: Has Channel 4 lost its lustre?

Is the station still delivering on its original promise, Alasdair Reid asks.

It was the year of the Falklands War and the Washington DC air disaster. The Soviet Union was still in existence - and when it wasn't imprisoning the Polish Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa, it was invading Afghanistan. Nearer home, the Belfast-based DeLorean cars went bust and ... oh yes, Britain acquired a fourth television channel, named, rather appropriately, Channel 4. It came on air with a rather disposable problem-solving game, Countdown, on 2 November 1982.

A silver jubilee is always worth celebrating, and Channel 4 is certainly pushing the boat out - it's rather excited, for instance, that its "25 More Years of Change" party scheduled for later this month will feature Derren Brown performing "mind-blowing acts" on the guests.

Which will come as a welcome distraction, because some of them might just be in a rather thoughtful mood. In some respects, this has been a troubled year for Channel 4.

Kevin Lygo's speech to the Edinburgh International TV Festival in August, where he flagged a return to more solid Channel 4 virtues (less trashy reality TV, basically), only served to remind people of the Celebrity Big Brother racism scandal and a broader feeling that the station has been losing its way.

This against a background of worries, voiced with increasing urgency by its chief executive, Andy Duncan, that Channel 4 will face a growing funding gap as audience fragmentation increases.

A far cry, you could argue, from much of the station's first decade, when it was a breath of fresh air - daring, provocative, challenging and fearlessly innovative.

Times have changed. We have closer to 400 channels these days, and the web is eroding the whole notion of broadcast television. But has Channel 4 lost sight of its original promise? Oliver Cleaver, the media director of Kimberly-Clark, doesn't think so. "It's good at doing non-traditional TV, not just in the programming sense, but in the way it deals with advertisers. Duncan has lots of fans in the business, not least because he's a marketing man. I think marketing people tend to trust Channel 4's judgment."

That's probably fair, Derek Morris, the chairman of ZenithOptimedia, agrees. But he reckons it's disappointing that it's hard to find much of the original remit today.

He adds: "At launch, the Channel 4 structure was described as a perfect British compromise. ITV paid a levy to it and then sold the ratings to recover the money. This guaranteed the funding to Channel 4 and provided an incentive for ITV not to blow it out of the market. Under this umbrella, Channel 4 could be bold and experimental with little eye to the ratings - a public service financed by private money."

But that particular genie will never be persuaded back into the bottle. Surely the channel's uniqueness will continue to be eroded. John O'Keeffe, the Bartle Bogle Hegarty executive creative director, agrees that Channel 4 sometimes suffers from comparisons between now and its early years - but we have to accept that things have evolved. He states: "Let's not forget that viewers do have remote controls and PVRs to personalise the Channel 4 they subscribe to. I for one don't find it hard to avoid the reality and lifestyle stuff if it means I can watch Shameless, Green Wing, Channel 4 News, Dispatches and Unreported World. As long as Channel 4 continues to innovate and take risks, then it will stay close to its original purpose."

Iain Jacob, the chief executive of Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA, would tend to agree. He concludes: "I think that's especially clear when you look at the whole Channel 4 family of channels and compare what they've done to what the BBC, for instance, has done with BBC3 and BBC4. Yes, this is a difficult space to be in, but you could argue that the BBC channels have bad numbers and bad positioning. In comparison, the Channel 4 audience profile is good. I think that proves how capably Channel 4 has evolved as a content-led business. In my view, it's still a fantastically strong media brand."

NO - Oliver Cleaver, media director, Kimberly-Clark

"It still delivers audiences with an exceptional profile - young and upscale - and it's a very engaged audience. It still goes where other stations don't tend to go, and I don't think there's any sign that it's been letting up."

MAYBE - Derek Morris, chairman, ZenithOptimedia

"It took over its responsibility to balance the budget, and the output has unsurprisingly changed. For that it can be excused. But perhaps it can't be excused for getting so hooked on the quick hit of populist ratings."

NO - John O'Keeffe, executive creative director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty

"Channel 4 has had to become a business and adapt to survive in a commercial world. Bringing in mass popular content has allowed it to fund the more defining parts of its schedule."

NO - Iain Jacob, chief executive, Starcom MediaVest Group EMEA

"This year has been horrendous, and I'd agree it was a poor decision to allow Big Brother to continue as long as it has done. But I still feel it has a strong proposition. It has shown you can be a content-led business without becoming a niche player."

- Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haymarket.com.