Media Studies by Ian Burrell: Channel 4 may no longer shock, but we should be glad it’s still here

It could do with some of the reflected glory from the anticipated success of the Paralympics

Who's shocked any more by Channel 4, the once radical television network that in two months' time will mark its 30th birthday? This week the network takes centre stage as it undertakes what its current bosses consider the most important project in its history, namely the broadcasting of the Paralympics not just as a package of highlights, but on a scale previously associated only with the Olympics themselves.

Channel 4 could do with some reflected glory from the anticipated success of the British Paralympians. The audience share of its main channel in peak time is on the slide, down to 6.8 per cent last year. Its mischievous head of comedy, Shane Allen, last week jumped ship to the BBC. Before he left, Allen hosted a party attended by Jimmy Carr and other stars to celebrate Channel 4's track record in comedy. He teased Channel 4's chief creative officer Jay Hunt with ribald jokes and made cheeky references to the network's reliance on Come Dine with Me, Grand Designs and shows about gypsies. Although spoken in jest, the jibes contained an element of truth.

It's much harder for Channel 4 to be original today than it was when it shook up the cosy duopoly of the BBC and ITV back in 1982. The third Channel 4 chief executive, Michael Jackson (1997-2001), highlighted some of the problems when publicly questioning the sixth and current incumbent, David Abraham, at last week's television festival in Edinburgh.

Describing the impact of Channel 4's initial launch 30 years ago with a licence to bring in challenging broadcasting and social change, Jackson suggested to Abraham that although it was generally well regarded it no longer provoked "strong impressions" among the public. The current chief executive countered by describing a programme of "cultural renewal" that he and Hunt have been overseeing after the channel axed its most lucrative and notorious reality show two years ago. "My sense is that Channel 4 is truer now to how it was before you brought Big Brother in," he told Jackson. "I would question whether or not we need to be institutionally loud – what matters is the cultural impact the work is having."

Abraham and Hunt are proud of shows such as Make Bradford British, which addressed the crisis in multiculturalism, The Undateables (a controversial approach to highlighting physical impairment) and the channel's 4 Goes Mad season, which focused on mental health issues. The chief executive rates Charlie Brooker's recent Black Mirror futuristic drama trilogy as having "a potency that matches anything in Channel 4's history".

He might have also mentioned Top Boy, Ronan Bennett's superb dramatisation of inner London street gangs or PhoneShop, E4's hilarious comedy about the culture inside the high street stores cashing in on the boom in mobile telephony.

These days E4 is about as down with the kids as Channel 4 – 30 years ago a youth brand in its own right. At least Channel 4's watch-again service, 4OD, has become the UK's leading commercial long-video platform and is attractive to young-er viewers and advertisers alike.

Abraham is from an advertising background, which explains why he has backed an initiative to get 5 million people to sign up with Channel 4 online in order to build a more engaged relationship with the audience. To his credit he has not bleated about the inadequacy of Channel 4's funding model as his predecessor, Andy Duncan, did, although he is worried about the "prolonged recession", which could impact on the £600m programme budget.

Channel 4 is facing serious competition from cash-rich Sky, which with its Sky Atlantic and Sky Arts networks has encroached on to territory that Channel 4's founding chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, occupied three decades ago. Well-meaning though Channel 4 still often is, it is frankly not as intellectually challenging as it was.

Abraham would not quite accept this. He told delegates in Edinburgh he was not dumbing down: "What Jay and I would rather see is a thought-provoking piece of public service television at the heart of prime time... probably not as high-brow or as cerebral as it was 30 years ago because it was a more hierarchical and paternalistic structure [then]."

Much else has changed in 30 years. The plethora of media outlets that arrived with digital television and the internet means each one has to work hard to cause a stir. Publicity-hungry modern businesses are looking to do the same. The controversies that once got Channel 4 talked about can now pass without comment from a more cynical and media-savvy public which is not easily shocked.

Some Channel 4 producers claim the network is less confident, insisting programme-makers and executives undertake media training to deflect negative press comment. It seems an excessively cautious approach for the home of Jon Snow and Channel 4 News. Though Channel 4 knows many taboos have been broken – often thanks to the network itself – Abraham argues "pervasive challenges" still confront every generation. Today he is looking to make waves with "controlled explosions" in the schedule.

The laudable Paralympics project is intended to deliver lasting change in attitudes to disability. After that, Channel 4 will stage a telethon fundraiser Stand up to Cancer. Neither disability nor cancer are challenges exclusive to a new generation – and it's hardly "explosive" or controversial in trying to address them.

But at least we can be confident that Channel 4, in its post-Big Brother incarnation, will cover these important subjects in a fresh and ambitious way and bring them on to a wider agenda. After 30 years, Channel 4 is less of a barricade-building revolutionary and more of a charity volunteer. But we don't have to pay a licence fee for it and we should be very glad it's still around.

The macho prince is taming the British tabloid beasts

Prince Harry, in partnership with some of the more reckless websites in the US, is transforming the once fearful international reputation of the British tabloid press.

Whether pursuing Taliban fighters as a tactical air controller for the Household Cavalry in Helmand or chasing Sin City sirens up to a hotel suite for a game of naked billiards, the macho prince seems uniquely capable of stunning the red tops into paralysis.

Of course, a request from the Ministry of Defence, asking papers to keep quiet about Harry's presence in Afghanistan in 2007 and the demand of royal lawyers that the prince's indiscretions in Las Vegas should not be illustrated were good reasons not to publish. Nonetheless, the fact that the Drudge Report leaked Harry's front-line deployment and entertainment site TMZ got the scoop on the royal nakedness will have helped to quash the longstanding notion in the US entertainment industry that the British tabloids are unrivalled in their lack of scruples.

Ahead of the Leveson report it may help to convince the judge that the press is capable of effective self-regulation. That's less likely after The Sun's belated decision to publish, an indication of its wounded pride at missing out on a royal story. Media lawyers have suggested the paper cynically calculated it could make more money from increased circulation than it might lose from being fined. I think the motivation was to save face with readers.

That's no public interest defence, but I can't help thinking that in the days of former editor Richard Wallace, the Daily Mirror, which was publicly warned of its rival's intention to publish, might have run the pictures too. With its seven-day publishing operation under Lloyd Embley, the Mirror seems less of a carnivore in the tabloid jungle. And for the real untamed beasts you now have to look to America.

A change of heart worked for satirist

Satirist Bassem Youssef, the "Jon Stewart of Egyptian television", confounded broadcasting types at the Edinburgh festival when he revealed that he was actually a heart surgeon who changed careers after giving medical aid to protesters in Tahrir Square during last year's Arab Spring. "You're someone with no TV experience and you've created a very successful show – it's very depressing for the rest of us," the BBC's Martha Kearney complained.

Twitter: @iburrell

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