If you want to gauge how weak the Government is, just consider the
current passage of the Broadcasting Bill. Favours are being handed out
right, left and centre.
Every lobbyist in the country is having a go.
Last week, Channel 4 found itself at the front of the queue. The end
result of the concessions granted in a tense late night sitting in the
House of Lords is that it will have much more to spend on programmes as
the year 2000 approaches - although that new wealth also brings the
attendant threat of privatisation.
A year ago, as this magazine cannily pointed out, Michael Grade’s
vociferous PR crusade for ending the ‘funding formula’ (which since 1993
has seen Channel 4 paying over pounds 169.5 million in a form of
statutory insurance to the muddled crew who run ITV) appeared to have
Despite the obsessional efforts of the best communicator in the
business, C4 was stuck with a dud deal which meant it received only one
quarter of what was arbitrarily dubbed its surplus income, anything over
a fixed 14 per cent share of the total ad and sponsorship cake generated
by the commercial terrestrial broadcasters.
Relief came from a huge if somewhat ambiguous concession from
Broadcasting minister Lord Inglewood. By next year Channel 4 will at
least be excused paying an estimated pounds 30 million payment into a
reserve fund, while payments to ITV are due to be phased out by 1999.
In practical terms, this means there will be an initial immediate ten
per cent boost to its programme budget, with the prospect of a 30 per
cent rise after that.
The real challenge for Channel 4 lies in the way it spends these riches,
in a manner consistent with its privileged and free-ranging brief to
serve ‘minority tastes and interests not catered for elsewhere’.
The channel needs to conduct a thorough bit of heart searching. I for
one would abolish the Blue Light, Red Light, Any Sort of Light Zones it
glories in. These are pure marketing packages designed to wrap around
repeats of archive footage, combined with a few new relevant late night
programmes. They are born of poverty and ingenuity but unfortunately
overlook the inconvenient fact that this is not the way real people
watch television. No-one rubs their hands in glee and says, ‘oh good, I
shall stay in tonight and sit through a C4 zone experience’.
It is also time for C4 to cut down the sleaze and rid itself of the
Beavis and Butt-Head image it has stupidly landed itself with.
C4 should be planning more drama series, more exciting European
programming than Eurotrash and expanded current affairs and
documentaries. It now has a golden opportunity to be qualitatively
different, to move upmarket.