Channel 4


Channel 4
Missing image
Channel 4 logo since January 1st, 2005

Launched:2nd November 1982
Audience Share (Aug 2004[1] ( 7.4% (with S4C)
Owned By: Channel 4 Television Corporation (UK Government)
Terrestrial Analogue: usually channel 4
Terrestrial Digital:Freeview channel 4 (channel 8 in Wales)
Satellite:Sky Digital channel 104 (channel 117 in Wales)
Cable:NTL channel 104

Telewest channel 104

Channel 4 is a television broadcaster in the United Kingdom (see British television). It was created by an Act of Parliament and started broadcasting on November 2, 1982. Unlike the BBC, it receives no public funding and all programming is financed through its commercial activities, which include advertising.

It is a publicly owned corporation whose board is appointed by OFCOM, in agreement with the Secretary of State for Culture Media and Sport. Like the BBC it is a Public Service Broadcaster and has a public service remit. It also has an obligation to provide schools programming.

Channel 4 nominally broadcasts only in England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland; in Wales, its equivalent is S4C, which broadcasts a mix of Channel 4 programming along with Welsh language programmes. However many television viewers in Wales receive Channel 4. Before digital broadcasting, Welsh viewers had to tune to the nearest English transmitter, but today it is available on all digital TV platforms in Wales. S4C's digital services do not include Channel 4 programming, and so as viewers move from analog to digital, it is effectively de-affiliating.



IBA Control: 1982-1990

Missing image
previous Channel 4 logo, used 1999-2004

In 1980 Britain had three terrestrial television channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. The 1980 Broadcasting Act began the process of adding a fourth, and Channel 4 was formally created by an Act of Parliament in 1982. After some weeks of test broadcasts it began scheduled transmissions on November 2 1982.

From the start, the channel set out to provide an alternative to the existing channels. In doing so it sometimes, in the eyes of its critics (including the public decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse), overstepped the boundaries of acceptability, but it has arguably led to a liberalisation of the UK television industry. Programming such as the "red triangle" series, The Tube, and Network 7 often straddled the boundary between being pioneering and being beyond the pale.

Channel 4 was one of the first "publishing only" television broadcasters in the world. All of it's programming is produced by other companies, it exists only to fund, broadcast and distribute it. It was also the first broadcaster in the world to put it's name on the introduction or credits of programs it didn't produce. Thus although it doesn't produce programs, many are seen to be belonging to it. This practice is now widespread.

Initially, the station was managed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority through subscription from the ITV franchise holders. In return, advertising on the channel (and advertising revenue) was handled by the ITV regions. This both removed the need for Channel 4 to establish it's own relationships with advertisers, and kept it from competing too closely with ITV. In many ways, Channel 4 was the first version of ITV2, complementing ITV programming in the same way BBC2 did with BBC1.

While the channel greatly pleased many minority groups (ethnic, sexuality and others), overall it was not very popular during this period.

Channel 4 also funded independent films during this period, in addition to made-for-tv material.

Independence: 1990-Today

The 1990 Broadcasting Act[2] ( altered the organisation of Channel 4, transforming it into a public corporation with a board partly appointed by the new Independent Television Commission. While its original remit was preserved, the channel now had to manage its own advertising (a potential disaster for a public service broadcaster), with a 'safety net' guaranteed minimum income should the revenue fall too low (which it so far has not). This safety net was funded by large insurance payments which the company had to make to the ITV companies. These premiums were phased out by the government in 1998.

It's new independence help bring in a rash of programming changes. Instead of aiming for the fringes of society, it began to focus on the edges of the mainstream, and the centre of the mass market itself. It began to import a lot of US programs, previously a rariety on UK FTA television. It premiered such shows as Friends and ER.

It also started broadcasting a lot of reality formats (including Big Brother), and semi-popular sports like Cricket and Horse Racing. This new direction caused its ratings (and revenues) to skyrocket.

In addition, it launched a number of subscription channels. These included a number of FilmFour channels, focusing on independant and non-English language films; attheraces, a horse racing channel; and E4, a general purpose second channel. Some of the FilmFour channels plus attheraces were discontinued due to a lack of interest.

In 2002, Channel 4's film financing division (FilmFour) was closed, due to massive losses. It had however had various successes, most notably Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Partially in reaction to it's new populist direction, the Communications Act of 2003 directed the channel to demonstrate innovation, experimentation and creativity, appeal to the tastes and interests of a culturally diverse society and to include programmes of an educational nature which exhibit a distinctive character.

In 2005, Channel 4 is expected to launch a new FTA channel on the Freeview platform, make E4 FTA on the same platform, and begin a new radio service based on OneWord.


Channel 4 is run by a chief executive, whose role is similar to that of the Director-General of the BBC. The chief executive is appointed by the chairman, which is a part-time position appointed by Ofcom.


Chief executives

Andy Duncan was appointed on July 1, 2004. He was previously the Director of Marketing, Communications and Audiences at the BBC.

Other channels

Film Four

Channel 4 has had a long record of success in funding the production of films through Channel Four Films, later renamed FilmFour in 1998 to coincide with the launch of its digital channels. Among its biggest successes are The Madness of King George, The Crying Game, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, this dedicated film-making wing was effectively closed in 2002 as a cost-cutting measure in the face of substantial losses.

Channel 4 launched a subscription film channel, FilmFour, in November 1998. It is available on analogue and digital satellite television. Companion services, such as FilmFour +1, FilmFour World and FilmFour Extreme were also available on some digital services. In 2003 Extreme and World were discontinued, and replaced with Film Four Weekly.

The Film Four channel is sometimes used to carry live cricket when the main channel is committed elsewhere, at which time it is free-to-air,


Channel 4 launched a dedicated horse racing channel, attheraces, in 2000, however for a combination of financial and legal reasons the channel ceased broadcasting in 2003. It was subsequently bought by BSkyB and relaunched in June 2004, but Channel 4 no longer has any involvement with it.


E4, a digital entertainment channel previously available on the Internet, was launched in January 2001. It features premieres of US imports and supplimentary footage for programs on it's main channel (most notably extended Big Brother coverage).


T4 is a separately identified strand carried on Channel 4 and E4.

Future proposals

On 27 February 2004 it was reported that Channel 4 and Five were discussing a possible merger. Because of the special nature of Channel 4, any such merger would have required an Act of Parliament. However in November 2004, Channel 4 pulled out of the discussions.

In August 2004 the news came that Channel 4 is planning a digital radio station using the licence currently belonging to Oneword radio. For more information, see the article Oneword.

In September 2004 Channel 4 spent 55m reserving space for up to 14 channels on SES Global's Astra 2D satellite before the limited amount of air space is filled, though some of this may be filled with Channel 4's existing channels when more expensive contracts with BSkyB expire in 2008. At the time it was rumoured that Channel 4 were working on a new channel, with a working title of More 4, aimed at older audiences, which would broadcast programmes from the channel's archive of factual and documentary programmes. This channel has yet to be formally announced.

Also in September, the television regulator, Ofcom, announced it was looking into creating a new public-service broadcasting license for a channel broadcasting three hours per day dedicated to factual and current affairs programming. The new channel, if it is approved, will probably not be funded by advertising, and may be a subscription channel or funded by a top-up to the BBC's license fee. It was widely suggested in the news that Channel 4 would be the most likely candidate to run the new channel.

In 2005, Channel 4 won an additional slot on the Freeview platform. It plans to launch a new channel aimed at older viewers. In May 2005, E4 (which was previously a subscription channel via Top Up TV on the digital terrestrial platform) went free-to-air at the same time as E4+1 arrived on Freeview, on the opening day of the sixth season of Big Brother.


One of the channel's strengths is its comedy. In the early days they screened The Comic Strip Presents, a highly innovative series of hour-long one-off comedies produced by a rotating line-up of alternative comedians such as Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Peter Cook, Peter Richardson, and Alexei Sayle. The Tube and Friday Night Live also launched the careers of a number alternative comedians. Latterly they have aired cutting-edge comedy shows such as Brass Eye, The Mark Thomas Product, Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights, Drop the Dead Donkey, Desmond's and arguably its biggest mainstream hit Father Ted.

The first voice ever heard on Channel 4 was that of continuity announcer Paul Coia, who intoned, "Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be able to say to you: Welcome to Channel Four", before heading into a montage of clips from its programmes ( (link to video clip) set to the station's David Dundas-penned signature tune, Fourscore, which would form the basis of the station's jingles for its first decade. The first programme to air on the channel was the teatime game show Countdown, produced by Yorkshire Television and fronted by Richard Whiteley; it is still running as of 2005 and is contracted until 2009.

In contrast to the other terrestrial TV channels, Channel 4 makes few of the programmes it broadcasts, partly as a result of the terms under which it was founded. Its critically acclaimed news service, Channel 4 News, is supplied by ITN, and the channel commissions many of its programmes from independent producers.

The channel has established a tradition of broadcasting the animated film of Raymond Briggs's picture book The Snowman, which in 1982 was the new channel's first major animated commission, every Christmas. From 2002, the film was controversially cropped from its original 4:3 picture format to the current widescreen standard of 16:9.

Channel 4 was the first UK broadcaster to use stranded programming with slots such as "4 Mation" showing innovative animation. Under Isaacs the channel also presented serious programmes on contemporary visual art such as "State of the Art".

Channel 4 pioneered the concept of After the Pub Television with series such as "Who Dares Wins", "Tonight with Jonathan Ross", "Friday Night Live" and "The Word" broadcast in the 10 - 11pm slot.

In 1989 the Channel launched a Breakfast Television slot produced by Mentorn Films, called the "Channel 4 Daily". In 1992 this was replaced by "The Big Breakfast". After the massive failure of "RI:SE" the channel has quit original programming for the breakfast tv slot in favour of repeats.

On November 4, 2003, Channel 4 screened its final episode of Brookside, a soap opera which had run for 21 years, since the channel started.

For years, Channel 4 has broadcast episodes of the most popular sitcoms from the United States on Friday nights. In 2004, Friday-night sitcoms on Channel 4 included Friends, Sex and the City and Will & Grace. American drama is also a key part of Channel 4's portfolio, including ER, Without a Trace, The West Wing" and Six Feet Under. Many of these programmes are shown (and notably edited) for their Sunday morning T4 slot.

Channel 4 is also noted for the screening of Big Brother. Based on the original Dutch format, the UK version has attracted massive press attention for each of its five series from 2000 to 2004.

Channel 4 also has a strong reputation for history programmes and real-life documentaries. It has also courted controversy, for example by broadcasting live the first public autopsy to be carried out in the UK for 170 years, carried out by Gunther von Hagens in 2002, or the 2003 one-off stunt Derren Brown Plays Russian Roulette Live.

The television chef Jamie Oliver could not reach a deal with the BBC after his contract with them expired in December, 2002. Channel 4 took him up. Since this happened, Jamie Oliver has created a number of documentaries like Jamie's Kitchen. Most recently, Jamie's School Dinners has been broadcast to coincide with his campaign to improve the quality of school dinners.

Starting in 2004, Channel 4 began a promotion of its channel consisting of the broadcast of short clips between programs of British or American actors answering more or less personal questions, such as "What animal do you feel most compatible with?", "What would you be doing if you weren't an actor?". One such clip led to controversy because it featured actors saying their favorite swear words. Many people were against having such vulgar words uttered on broadcast television.

Since 5 November 2004, Channel 4 has had the British terrestrial rights to show new-to-terrestrial episodes of The Simpsons, in addition to several of the classic seasons, rights that had previously been held by the BBC since the show started airing on British terrestrial (1996). This was considered a major scoop for Channel 4, which began promoting The Simpsons nearly a month in advance, using 18-frame teasers for the show (made up of various characters' faces being created using different-coloured Channel 4 logos) to lead into commercial breaks from October 8th onward. Classic episodes (usually from seasons 2 to 5) now show on C4 at 6pm on weekdays, with an extra, newer episode on Fridays at 9pm.

Channel 4 and its associated channels do not cut programmes or movies for commercial timing purposes.

Audience records

The highest audience ever attained by Channel 4 was 13.8 million for the film A Woman of Substance, broadcast on 4 January 1985. Excluding films, the channel's highest rating was 10 million viewers for the final of the third series of Big Brother on 27 July 2002.


The Channel 4 building
The Channel 4 building

Channel 4 occupies a distinctive, purpose-designed building on Horseferry Road, Westminster, designed by Richard Rogers Partnership with structural engineering by Ove Arup & Partners. It follows on from, but is more restrained than, the Lloyd's building in the City of London, and was constructed from 1991-94.

See also

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