Shiny Shelf


Channel Flawed

By Eddie Robson on 29 June 2003

I’ve been meaning to write this article for months, and the longer it goes on the more material I gather. Channel 4 is in a miserable, disheartening decline and as director of programmes Tim Gardam moves on, this seems like a good time to examine what has gone wrong.

The first inkling of the rot came in 2000 when C4 picked up ‘Angel’. The channel had made a name for itself in its choice and handling of US imports, turning ‘Friends’, ‘Frasier’ and ‘ER’ into ratings smashes whilst the BBC somehow managed to turn America’s most successful sitcom ever – ‘Seinfeld’ – into a late-night niche programme watched by almost nobody. However, the BBC had scored a rare success in picking up ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and C4 wanted to get even.

Failing to appreciate that ‘Angel’ is essentially a post-watershed show, C4 aired it at 6pm and was forced to make so many cuts that several episodes were rendered incomprehensible. The second season was aired uncut, but this was at around 10:30pm on Saturday when most of its teenage and twentysomething audience is either at the pub or watching Premiership football.

C4 has now let ‘Angel’ go to Five, a much-derided channel which looks increasingly good next to C4. Five can’t afford to make decent drama of its own and so treats its imports well – ‘C.S.I.’ and ‘Boomtown’ have done well as a post-watershed double bill and ‘Angel’ has taken an 8pm slot, which should result in some cuts but makes it accessible to all age groups. Not counting soaps, this makes ‘Angel’ one of only two dramas currently on British TV in the prime-time 7pm-9pm period, the other being BBC1’s risible ‘Holby City’.

One has to give Five credit for this, since drama is being increasingly sidelined by British TV in favour of lifestyle programming and ‘reality’ shows. Five has also picked up ‘Alias’ from C4, another show which was improperly scheduled (Saturday teatimes, when it rarely occurs to anybody to see what’s on C4). Will ‘Smallville’ be next? It’s currently sitting in a Sunday teatime slot on C4 and increasingly falls victim to the bane of British TV – shifting schedules.

I do go on about this rather a lot and I’m afraid that I won’t stop until the problem is sorted out. One of the things that wins Five my respect is that it tends to hold shows in a regular time slot. Its initial ’stripped and stranded’ approach was too rigid but a more flexible version currently means that Five’s handful of prize shows are on at consistent times. The other channels shunt their programmes around in the schedules constantly and then wonder why nothing ever builds up an audience: C4 has become one of the worst culprits.

‘Smallville’ is currently on at 6:35pm. Or 6:40pm. Or 6:10pm if they decide to shift the news back to 7 o’clock. Last Sunday C4 made the switch to showing it in double bills, which is ominous: it’s often a sign that a channel is losing patience with a show and wants to get it out of the way. It also means that ‘Smallville’ now starts at 5:15pm, which will come as a surprise to anybody who flips over at 6:30 expecting to see it. Most television viewers are not loyal: they have to be won. C4 is currently not making that effort.

‘The West Wing’, currently C4’s strongest import along with ‘ER’ and ‘Six Feet Under’, is suffering even worse indignities: having basked last year in a prime Sunday night slot, it is now tucked away at 11:45 on a Monday and is preceded in the schedules by a documentary series about surgical procedures in the genital area (this week: the bladder). A similar fate befell ‘The Sopranos’, which was shunted into a late slot to make way for repeats of ‘Eurotrash’ – a show which belongs in a Friday night post-pub slot (and nowhere else).

Meanwhile, ‘ER’ has moved from an all-conquering 10pm slot to a lower-profile 9pm slot. Ever since BBC1 moved its news from 9pm to 10pm this has been a weaker slot and the paucity of interesting programming at 9pm on both BBC2 and C4 reflects this (BBC1 really shot BBC2 in the foot by moving the news, but that’s a whole other article). And ‘Six Feet Under’ – the sleeper hit of last summer – has been rewarded with a Sunday 10pm slot. It’s a great slot, which is why BBC2 has been running ‘24′ in it since March. If C4 is banking on disillusionment with ‘24′ to win ratings for ‘6FU’ then it’s a risky manoeuvre (in an interview with The Guardian today, Tim Gardam acknowledged that he should have bid for both rather than let ‘24′ go).

So where should these shows be? That’s an easy one: 10pm. The problem is that this slot is rarely available these days. Currently it is occupied by ‘Big Brother’, which I have no strong objections to: I quite enjoy watching it and it has proved useful in propping up the summer schedules (although it has completely and pointlessly clogged E4). The problem is that it should be used for leading-in to shows which might otherwise not find an audience, but at the moment it is followed by ‘V Graham Norton’. Gardam claims these two as his greatest successes as director of programmes but when they’re on every night in C4’s best slots, the schedule looks uninspired in the extreme.

I’m not going to kick ‘V Graham Norton’ too much because it has improved recently. Last year I criticised Norton for not talking to his guests enough and for wasting too much time making prank calls to mad Americans and humiliating the audience. Someone, somewhere – possibly Norton himself – has noticed this and now he does indeed spend more time talking to the guests. His interview with John Malkovitch the other week was the most entertaining I’ve seen on British TV in a long time.

However, whilst I fully understand the desire to create a Letterman-style show why not air it when Letterman does, at 11pm? Is it because Five tried to do it with ‘The Jack Docherty Show’ and failed? If so, that’s a false premise – ‘Docherty’ failed because the budget was too low and the lead-in programmes weak (oh, and because it had an inconsistent start time). There is literally NOTHING else on at 11pm and a light chat show would be very welcome.

This would leave the 10pm slot free for films – which have almost vanished from the prime-time schedule and been relegated to daytime and late-night – and dramas, both imported and home-grown. Admittedly there is very little home-grown drama to shout about, but it would help if there were decent slots available.

For example, C4 has completely failed to capitalise on its best home-grown drama for ages, ‘Teachers’ – it hasn’t aired in over a year. Mr Clapham told me that this was my fault for watching ‘Big Brother’ and discouraging C4 from putting anything else on, but the fact is that ‘Teachers’ is too good to waste on a summer slot – and it’s also too good to stick in the post-Norton 10:40 slot that it had last year. Perhaps it’s the production company’s fault that the third series hasn’t emerged yet but C4 should have aired it in the spring. As it is we’ll probably have to wait until September.

One thing which ‘Teachers’ got right was having a longer run than the standard six episodes. Six is fine for a mini-series but an ongoing series should be longer. The reason why American shows currently are more popular than British shows (apart from the fact that they’re currently better) is that they are around for half the year and have more time to work their way into the public consciousness. Whilst British TV may not be able to support more than a few series with 26-episode runs (‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Casualty’ both manage it but they don’t have production breaks like US TV does and the quality suffers as a result), 10-13 episodes is surely achievable.

There are some positive signs to be taken from Gardam’s interview. He acknowledges that C4 has under-achieved on drama during his tenure, admitting that he should not have commissioned ‘Twenty Things to Do Before You’re 30′ (what people who don’t like ‘This Life’ think ‘This Life’ was like: self-obsessed characters whining about petty problems and not even having the good grace to be funny) or ‘Boys and Girls’, perhaps the worst programme of the century so far (commissioned because Gardam felt that he owed creator Chris Evans a favour for winning them ratings with ‘Don’t Forget Your Toothbrush’, ‘TFI Friday’ and ‘The Big Breakfast’).

Gardam is also correct in his assertion that C4 has created the best ‘reality’ shows – whilst BBC1’s and ITV’s have been largely unwatchable, C4’s ‘Faking It’ and ‘Reality Check’ have been rather good. Indeed, such shows are the envy of new ITV network boss David Pickard and ideally these would be on ITV in the first place, freeing up C4 for more adventurous stuff.

C4 is supposed to be ‘the alternative’: it says so in its remit, but with the recent drop in advertising revenues the channel has lost its bottle. Its prime-time has been terribly middle-of-the-road and if anything ‘edgy’ comes on you can practically guarantee it’ll be about sex, which is precisely what Five has been criticised so heavily for. C4 is strong on current affairs and expose-type programmes but its history and science docs are not up to the BBC’s standard and most of its arts programming is on after midnight, as though the only people who would be interested are students and third-rate hacks like myself.

BBC1 has ‘Top of the Pops’, BBC2 has ‘Later…’ ITV has ‘CD:UK’: why does C4 have no flagship music programme? What happened to endearingly on-the-cheap review shows like ‘Vids’ and ‘Bits’? And, whilst I am aware that the printed word is not that visually stimulating, surely there is room, somewhere, for a show about literature, since new writing is so sorely under-promoted in comparison to music or film (both of which translate more easily to TV)? At a time when the BBC has relegated most of its arts programmes to BBC4 where mainstream viewers are unlikely to stumble over it, C4 has a golden opportunity to step in. Gardam noted that he commissioned a very substantial series on the novel just before he left, which will hopefully go down well.

Promisingly, both Pickard and Gardam said in recent interviews that they suspect the British public of being ’soaped-out’. Gardam arrived at C4 believing that ‘Brookside’ should not be its only ratings-grabber and last year he finally put the show out of its misery. The first thing that Pickard did on taking over was to cancel ‘Crossroads’, which had just had its second revamp to no acclaim whatsoever. Elsewhere, the other three big soaps have been stretched so thinly that they are practically gibberish.

C4’s remaining soap ‘Hollyoaks’ is moderately entertaining but has also been over-extended, clogging most of the 6:30 slots which could be put to much better use. The 6pm slot is even more problematic, since it spent several weeks earlier this year being entirely filled by the interminable reality show ‘The Salon’. I have not managed to find one single person who watched ‘The Salon’, yet astonishingly it is gearing up for a second series. One hopes that C4’s acquisition of ‘The Simpsons’ will inspire a rethink of the hour between 6pm and 7pm: it’s another great opportunity for the channel which is currently being wasted on a daily basis.

In any case, it is good to know that the people running British TV are aware that there are problems. If there is to be an improvement, then Channel 4 should be the one to lead the way. There have been some better decisions recently, such as the revival of the US-style ‘promotion’ system for well-performing shows: ‘Scrubs’ did well enough last year to merit a Friday slot for its second season. Whilst the new director of programmes (who has yet to be appointed) will inherit a confused network which has largely lost its way in recent years, a little confidence and ambition could set it right again.


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By Eddie Robson




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