Shiny Shelf

Digital? Derisory

By Ben Felsenburg on 30 September 2006

Go back a decade or two and Channel 4 was the coming force of TV in the 80s. This was the age of post-punk, a hot Cold War and Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out. The staid old networks offered little to these times for those not satisfied by Bruce Forsyth or reassured by Brideshead nostalgia.

And then along came a fourth channel, committed by charter and the sheer eccentricity of its programme-makers to being something other. It could be offensive, esoteric or even deathly boring but never, ever safe. At last, for the gay, the young, the weird and the Welsh there was a button you could call home.

And the continuing feast was far more than just ‘Brookside’, ‘The Tube’ and the unfailingly disappointing late-night promise of the Red Triangle. For example, rewind back to the start of the 90s and a perennial obsession here at Shiny Shelf: ‘Nightingales’. Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall starring as Becekttian security guards in thirteen half-hours of dark laughs that subverted the sit-com dry of every convention long before you’d heard of Davids Larry or Brent. This sublime delight was tucked away in a blink-and-you-missed late night slot. Nowadays you wouldn’t see daylight for the hype and praise of Britain’s parochial critics.

You’ll notice a while ago the surprises on 4 dried up. Television is a business, ridiculously expensive and unpredictable. That’s why the original charter for 4 sought to protect the channel from the wilder excesses of the capitalist jungle with the cross-promotional revenue guarantee provided by the old ITV. That arrangement ended in 1998, just as the television was anyway being divided into much smaller portions with the advent of the multichannelverse.

All of which is a roundabout way to say 4 sold its soul, with little choice. Hence the move to a youthful mainstream, with ‘Big Brother’ the golden motherlode of the schedules. Hence the increasing prominence of US imports. Hence the changed direction of FilmFour to more commercial features (although the once hot production house is now struggling to reclaim a position lost through careless neglect). Hence the increasing number of digital side-channels, each designed by demographically precision-tailored marketing.

Examining the present you might just want to play it safe and tape over the fourth button on the remote. ‘Big Brother’ makes far too much money to be dropped, even if its air of petty decadence is enough to rouse the Pope to join Al-Quaeda. Nikki’s showcase is a masterpiece of sophistication beside Whatever, a frightening expression of a jaded, aged commissioner’s fantasy of youth masquerading as the parody of a teen pop culture show. And then the never-ending parade of shock docs, excitedly titled by a crack team of punning acned masturbators. Living with Parkinsons? ‘I’m All Shook Up.’ Well done, chaps!

Now 4 itself is set to make a complete digital switch-over helped by the small matter of £100 million. Perhaps you’ve forgotten, but that’s from you, the licence fee payer. Is it too late for a refund?

Line Break

By Ben Felsenburg


Comments are closed.