There is a certain neatness in the way two key media appointments
were announced last week, within hours of each other. First, Michael
Jackson was finally confirmed as the new chief executive of Channel 4.
Then Tony Blair made the able Chris Smith Heritage Secretary, in charge
of broadcasting, arts, sport and the lottery.
He is a far better choice for the ’Ministry of Fun’ (as David Mellor
once dubbed it) than previous shadow, Jack Cunningham. A Government that
believes in ’education, education, education’ must place great emphasis
on encouraging culture, in its broadest sense. And Jackson is a more
than worthy successor to Michael Grade. The two men have much to discuss
in the months ahead, for although New Labour doesn’t plan immediate
broadcasting legislation, it has to settle on an enlightened policy for
Channel 4 to see it into the next century.
Even if privatisation is ruled out, a new formula and timetable has to
be agreed by the end of this year for phasing out the huge ’safety net’
payments it makes to ITV. Not an easy nettle to grasp, but it is a great
test of how Labour values public service TV.
Jackson must seize the moment to redefine Channel 4’s role - to explain
why it is a living treasure instead of simply asserting its right to a
privileged place in the broadcasting mix. And, if it is to win the
argument to retain more of its surplus cash, then he must revamp its
programming and commissioning structure, and demand higher
It is an uncomfortable fact that Channel 4’s recent commercial success
has not been matched creatively across the range of output. The
statutory remit to innovate and experiment has been technically
fulfilled, but it is not firing on all cylinders. Watching the repeat of
Gulliver’s Travels last weekend only served to remind one how good
Channel 4 can be. It has become staid in parts, relying too heavily on
imports such as Friends, ER and the melodrama of Brookside.
Study last month’s Programme Performance Review by the Independent
Television Commission and you find alarm bells ringing. The Big
Breakfast, now in its fifth year, has lost its way and about half of its
audience: the children have departed to BBC2, leaving it stranded.
Educational programmes have veered towards softer leisure topics:
Equinox, its flagship science programme, can be shallow. Comedy and
entertainment have mixed reviews while drama lacked range. Its arts
programming, after Without Walls was scrapped, begs for
Jackson knows only too well that Channel 4 can do better - talented
British writers and producers flock to work for it as they flee the
bureaucratic BBC. I hope Chris Smith strikes a hard but fair bargain on
behalf of viewers.