New Channel 4 chief must go back to basics

New Channel 4 chief must go back to basics

When Michael Jackson bowed out of Channel 4 in October he gave a speech entitled The Fourth Way. In it, he said that public service broadcasting was as good as dead, a pointless battle cry. What viewers wanted was good programming.

So if that is The West Wing or The Sopranos rather than Ken Loach's The Navigators or grim drugs drama Swallow, so be it. The things which challenge conventions, such as Chris Morris's Brass Eye on the media hysteria covering paedophilia, he argued, are capable of shocking people with liberal tendencies just as much as the heirs of Mary Whitehouse. Well, Jackson is entitled to his view. He'd repositioned the main channel pretty impressively over four years despite hanging onto The Big Breakfast too long.

The bigger point - and I write as the BBC's Mark Thompson is in exclusive negotiations - is that there is no one set recipe for Channel 4, it should be fluid.

It is not supposed to be a place for lifers. Executives are meant to come and go so that there is always fresh thinking. It pays no fee for its frequencies precisely because it is designed to be a special sort of public service broadcaster, experimenting, refreshing the mix.

Every now and then its programmes and policies should be torn up by the roots and re-examined. For example, right now there is a tremendous boom in history which Channel 4 has helped stimulate with narratives such as Elizabeth.

With ITV catching the bug for everything from social history to kings and queens, surely C4's duty now is to bravely head off into new factual areas. European history, apart from the Romans, looks neglected. Religion is another fruitful area, especially after last year's Kumbh Mela and the explosive tensions post-September 11. But there is also a question mark about the wisdom of hiring old ITV stars Richard & Judy. This smacks of desperation, partly because Channel 4 hasn't really worked out where its leisure and lifestyle programming is going.

That's why it needs strong leadership. The fourth way has to be about providing a distinctive service, dealing with interests and groups not readily served by commercial television. This is legally required under broadcasting legislation. Without a huge in-house department of programme makers to worry about, Channel 4, like Channel 5, should have more room to manoeuvre than the BBC.

The first chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs was a one term chief executive, who left with regret in 1987, having set much of the recipe: films, serious news, arts. Michael Grade drove into Film 4 and big authored dramas from Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale.

Under Jackson Channel 4 has had a tremendous run of fresh entertainment hits, as well as some wonderful 9 pm factual series like Faking It and the 1940s House. But it also has tried to become a media company, with mixed results.

Where does it go next? Well, it needs, in part, to go back to basics at a time when advertising revenue will, at best, be static, and make sure that Channel 4 is seen, not as a slick fat-cat operator, but a channel with a conscience, an edge and a juicy £400 million annual programme budget.

Directors have already taken the axe to the loss-making interactive division, but it would be madness not to press on with E4, but link it more closely with Channel 4. After all, the BBC3 proposal aimed at the same youth market is now substantially reworked as a serious network and looks set for Government approval.

Improved relations with independent suppliers must also be top of the agenda.

But, above all, Channel 4 was never meant to be safe.

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