A very public function

Channel 4 still flies the flag for innovation and controversy, says Director of Programmes Kevin Lygo

ON 8 August 1911, an itinerant worker called Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the Louvre and stole the
Mona Lisa; he kept it on his mantelpiece for two years. At the time it was stolen, it was neither the most famous nor the most acclaimed painting in the world, but once it had disappeared the public began to sense something was wrong. Newspapers filled more and more column inches about the vanished work. Postcard reproductions were manufactured at an unprecedented rate. Finally, a tipping point was reached when more people had come to look at the place where the
Mona Lisa had been, than had come to see it when it was actually there. They only realised what they had once it had gone.

ON 8 August 1911, an itinerant worker called Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the Louvre and stole the Mona Lisa; he kept it on his mantelpiece for two years. At the time it was stolen, it was neither the most famous nor the most acclaimed painting in the world, but once it had disappeared the public began to sense something was wrong. Newspapers filled more and more column inches about the vanished work. Postcard reproductions were manufactured at an unprecedented rate. Finally, a tipping point was reached when more people had come to look at the place where the Mona Lisa had been, than had come to see it when it was actually there. They only realised what they had once it had gone.

Don't be alarmed. As the current curator of the Channel 4 exhibition, I can assure you that nobody is about to steal us; but the debate concerning public service television, and specifically Channel 4's role within it, is at a crucial stage, with the channel's future scale and impact in the balance.

We need to widen the debate from the merits of individual programmes and whether or not they are worse than in the good old days. Trying to evaluate Channel 4's public service contribution on the strength of one programme - whether it be Big Brother or Channel 4 News - is about as useful as judging the merits of a school by looking at the results of one pupil. All our programmes exist on a sliding scale between loss-making but remit-reinforcing at one end and purely profitable at the other. It's the programmes in the middle, which combine the remit and commercial reward, which are the Holy Grail.

Every programme contributes to Channel 4's public service. Hollyoaks may not immediately spring to mind when the talk turns to PSB, but its profits help pay for more acclaimed but loss-making shows - Green Wing, Shameless, Sex Traffic. It's a significant platform in its own right for connecting younger viewers with social issues. And, just as vitally, it's the glue that binds that younger audience to the channel. The viewers who come to Channel 4 for Hollyoaks may stick around for a documentary about parenting or for Channel 4 News, which is watched by the highest proportion of 16 to 34-year-olds of any terrestrial news bulletin.

Channel 4 is delivering a more valuable public service as each year passes: more investment in programming - a record £470m in 2004; a significant reduction in our reliance on bought-in American programmes and films - just 29 per cent of our schedule last year, compared to 43 per cent 10 years ago; a 60 per cent increase in our news output in the past five years; a 25 per cent increase in our core current affairs hours, with Dispatches increasing from 12 to 28 episodes in peak next year.

Throughout its history, Channel 4 has remained focused on essentially the same values - range and quality, diversity, education and, most importantly, innovation. What constitutes innovation on TV has changed drastically since Channel 4 first broadcast some 22 years ago. In the early years there were many genuine television firsts, but there was also little competition. Nowadays Channel 4 cannot rely on filling the gaps left by other channels in order to innovate.

The television audience also has a complex relationship with innovation. In a recent Ofcom survey of 6,000 individuals, a significant majority revealed that as well as world peace, a lottery win and a poncho from Top Shop they wanted more "innovation and originality" from TV. Yet experience tells me to treat such findings with caution. Behind closed curtains on a wet winter evening are the majority of viewers really going to opt for that challenging drama-doc on the 9/11 terrorists when set against the familiar attractions of The Bill or Holby City? The audience figures say otherwise.

That's not to say there is no appetite for the fresh and the challenging amongst TV viewers - that Channel 4 drama-doc, The Hamburg Cell, attracted a highly encouraging audience of two million. But that appetite is sporadic. Connecting genuine innovation with large and mainstream audiences is probably the most complex task facing any creative organisation in today's fragmenting media landscape. Shaping popular tastes is infinitely more difficult than following them.

Unsurprisingly, other commercial TV channels, including ITV and Five, generally duck the challenge, preferring the certainty of formats that have proven their profitability or talent that has passed the ratings test. The BBC, bubble-wrapped in £3bn of public funding, has a better track record, but even many of its innovations are at the margins. There is little risk attached to giving airtime to new comedy on BBC 3 or a first-time documentary director on BBC 4 when there is no requirement to win either ratings or a commercial return. That leaves Channel 4, with its remit to innovate, as television's main access to the vanguard of popular culture. Our research shows that viewers see Channel 4 as the most innovative channel by a massive margin.

Perhaps the channel's biggest contribution to innovation is the emphasis it puts on new talent - from Anamaria Marinca and Maria Popistasu who headlined Sex Traffic to the brilliant casts of Shameless, No Angels and Green Wing. Channel 4 has dedicated on-air initiatives for new talent, including 3-minute Wonder, The Comedy Lab and the Outside zone. The channel also broadcasts a significantly higher number of entirely new programmes than any of the other terrestrials - more than 130 in peak-time so far this year, as many as ITV and Five combined.

The clearest test of the originality of Channel 4's programming is the imitations they spawn on other channels. The reality tidal wave that followed the success of Big Brother, the rash of swap formats after Wife Swap and Faking It, direct rip-offs of our lifestyle and property formats. Look out for a sudden burst of parenting programmes after the phenomenon of Supernanny earlier this year. And it is still possible, even in a business as over-crowded and cynical as TV, to find programming that breaks the mould - Green Wing, part sketch-show, part narrative comedy, in nine one-hour episodes on Friday nights.

Channel 4 is still the channel most likely to find itself at the centre of the debate about where the boundaries of TV lie, from the abortion film My Foetus and Darcus Howe's race polemic Who You Calling a Nigger? to the controversial documentary on Bradford social services, Edge of the City, and our new human decomposition project Dust to Dust. We still attract the most distinctive authorial voices - Chris Morris, Peter Oborne, Jane Treays, Jon Snow, David Starkey, Sandra Jordan, Bettany Hughes, to name a few.

It's my ambition that Channel 4 has a distinct purpose in every genre - supporting contemporary arts, being the channel most at ease with issues of race, focusing on voices from outside the Westminster establishment in our current affairs, gearing 4 Learning towards teenagers who have slipped out of formal education and making people laugh at things they thought they shouldn't.

The industry regulator Ofcom has placed innovation at the top of its agenda, with plans to set up a £300m annual fund to encourage the new and experimental within television. Simultaneously, it has highlighted the "vital" role that Channel 4 will play providing PSB competition to the BBC as digital switch-off approaches and ITV and Five retreat from their licence obligations. It's my view that these two objectives need to be aligned and that measures need to be put in place to protect the wealth of innovation that Channel 4 already provides before we start worrying about launching new public service initiatives into a complex and competitive market. There's no Vincenzo Peruggia skulking in Horseferry Road, but we should treasure and protect what we've got in front of us before we hurtle off into the dark.

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