Channel 4's founding chief executive has waded into the debate about whether the broadcaster has strayed too far from its public service remit, accusing it of having an "obsession" with sex and bad behaviour.
In an article for Prospect magazine, Sir Jeremy Isaacs cites programmes such as Designer Vaginas, The World's Biggest Penis and the forthcoming Wank Week, as evidence of the channel's decline. He lambasts the broadcaster for allowing Peaches Geldof to host a show about Islam and argues that Big Brother has declined from an innovative social experiment to the embodiment of "a mildly prurient voyeurism". In its early days, Channel 4 offered "a quiet seriousness that today has mostly disappeared", writes Sir Jeremy. "Today, commercial ambitions are taking Channel 4 down different paths."
Sir Jeremy's words echo the case put forward in the MacTaggart Lecture at Edinburgh, three months ago, when, in a reference to public handouts to the broadcasters, the outgoing ITV chief executive Charles Allen described Channel 4 as "behaving like a 25-year-old still living at home. Dipping into mum's purse, even when it's got a fat pay cheque in its back pocket."
Complaints about Channel 4's proclivity for graphic sexual content date back to 1987 when, after replacing Sir Jeremy as chief executive, Michael Grade earned the soubriquet of "pornographer-in-chief".
But with Channel 4 lobbying the media regulator Ofcom and the Government for help to bridge a £100m gap it claims will open up in its finances as the UK switches from analogue to digital TV by 2012, the debate about its public service remit has intensified. Channel 4's prime marketing concept is the appeal to a 16- to 34-year-old audience, says Sir Jeremy, who was chief executive from its launch in 1982 until 1987.
"This has some strange consequences - a series explaining Islam, for example, is entrusted to Peaches Geldof. There's an obsession with adolescent transgression and sex. Gordon Ramsay is hired to make a series called The F Word; Designer Vaginas is followed by The World's Biggest Penis. Earlier this autumn, unless I dreamt it, we [heard about] a 'Wank Week'."
Sir Jeremy believes that Channel 4's commercial success "sits oddly" with its public service obligations. "Does one smother the other?" he asks. "Predicting hard times ahead as rivals proliferate, the channel is lobbying to secure public subsidy of as much as £100m a year to underpin its public purpose [it currently receives free broadcasting spectrum in return for its public service obligations]. Does it deserve this?"
For its part, the broadcaster can point to Channel 4 News, arguably the best news bulletin, and a longer run for the one-hour Dispatches while the BBC's Panorama is cut to 30 minutes for its weekday slot.
Channel 4's director of programmes, Kevin Lygo, and chairman, Luke Johnson, both refused to attend Mr Allen's MacTaggart Lecture, which Mr Johnson later rejected unequivocally.
* GORDON RAMSAY'S THE F WORD
A programme which comfortably lives up to its name with the chef using his favourite expletive as noun, verb and adjective. The format is a curious mix of magazine, game show and cookery demonstration, but his language binds it all together.
* PENIS WEEK
An audience of 2.2 million viewers (a 21 per cent share) tuned in for the week's highlight, a documentary called The World's Biggest Penis. Other delights included The Perfect Penis, which included details of an individual who runs a penis growth website and "now has 50,000 members".
* DESIGNER VAGINAS
Documentary about women who have surgery to improve the "look" and sensitivity of their vaginas. The most offensive scenes for many were the graphic close-ups of real operations taking place, interspersed with interviews with the women who chose to have them.Reuse content