Grade's last C4 programmes too safe, says TV watchdog

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL Grade's final year of programmes at Channel 4 have been damned as too safe by the commercial television regulator in its annual report.

The Independent Television Commission also raised concerns about the spread of confessional chat shows like Vanessa and, for the second year running, condemned ITV's lack of variety.

Channel 4 "lost its drive" for innovation in 1997 and aired too few "landmark" programmes according to the ITC's annual performance review which was published yesterday. Sarah Thane, director of programming at the ITC, said in the past the channel has put on programmes like its "Gimme Shelter" and "Banned" seasons, but last year had no "high peaks" of minority interest programming.

The ITC is known to believe that Channel 4 spent too much of its energy promoting and buying programmes like ER and Friends and not enough on its more fringe shows. It is also unhappy that 84 per cent of the foreign language films shown by the channel last year started after midnight.

"This is largely a review of the old management and the old money Channel 4 used to receive," said Sir Robin Biggam, chairman of the ITC. "The new management came on board at absolutely the right time... Michael Jackson [Mr Grade's successor] had very little influence on last year."

Since Mr Grade's departure in May 1997, the Government has stopped the controversial funding formula whereby Channel 4 paid a percentage of its advertising revenue to ITV. In return for keeping this money, the channel's broadcasting licence has been re-written to make it produce more original programmes and use fewer American imports.

Yesterday, Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer lobby group , echoed the ITC's view: "Michael Grade was a very good judge of popular taste and he certainly steered the channel into financially safe waters and increased audiences, which means the channel was perhaps riskier in catering for really minority audiences when it first started."

Mr Jackson, Channel 4's chief executive, said yesterday that the channel was already addressing the ITC recommendations.

The ITC report also criticised all broadcasters for daytime schedules that are over-reliant on confessional chat shows like Vanessa or Oprah. "They are an import and do raise concerns about the vulnerability of the people taking part and the general coarsening of society," said Sir Robin Biggam.

ITV was again criticised by the commission for having too much drama at the expense of entertainment and comedy in its peak-time schedule.

"Network Centre drama output in 1997 increased once more to a level which is now nearly 26 per cent greater than that of 1993," says the report.

"Most of this is extremely popular and of high quality but it does crowd out other types of programmes. The network should achieve greater diversity."

Instead, the ITC wants the better comedy and entertainment from ITV and says its Saturday night line-up has become "excessively one-note".