Peter Dale on Broadcasting

There's nothing to stop digital TV coming up with daring content

So, I'm standing in the Channel 4 garden looking down the barrel of a news camera and here's the first question:

By pretending to assassinate George Bush, don't you think you've been offensive to the office of the President?

No.

Isn't this likely to inspire a copycat killing?

No.

Are you going to pull the programme?

No.

Are you going to resign?

[A pause that's slightly too long while I contemplate saying something facetious. But the interview is to be pooled across the US and, given the Americans' tenuous grasp of irony, I think better of it.] No.

Just 24 hours earlier we'd had the press launch of More 4's Death of a President. Invariably for small digital channels, press launches are low-key affairs with the media-pack sucking their pens waiting for something, anything, to write about. But this shiny new drama, which imagines what might happen if someone took a gun to George Bush, had them scribbling away.

Before I got back to my desk it was the lead story on several media websites, and by the end of the day there'd been millions of hits on US news sites. The White House refused to comment and Hillary Clinton and Kevin Costner readily pronounced their disapproval. More worryingly, Floyd from Kansas let me know that he was very, very unhappy with me personally, and I was not looking forward to my next encounter with the US immigration department. Buttock-clenching doesn't do it justice.

For a digital channel barely a year old, it's rare to get this kind of attention. And it's a different kind of attention from the sort you get with, say, celebrities being intimate with pigs. It springs from a clever, thought-provoking piece of film-making that addresses one of the most urgent issues of the modern world: what is the war on terror doing to our civil societies?

It's the kind of programme that you'd be delighted to find on any terrestrial channel, but for something as noisy as this to come from digital television is, I'd say, unprecedented. Why so? What's to stop digital channels coming up with daring, original, new programming? Why do we associate digital with bland, repetitive mush?

It's partly to do with the origins of digital channels and partly to do with their purpose. The terrestrials, apart from Five, have all grown out of a publicly acknowledged requirement to fill a gap in the range of British broadcasting, whether they are licence-fee funded, purely commercial or, in the case of Channel 4, commercial and publicly owned. Each has clearly stated tasks, and they all, more or less, have a streak of public service running through them.

Digitals, on the other hand, have grown out of the less ennobling impulse to land-grab valuable deregulated advertising space. Most are low-cost side-channels that squeeze the value from old programmes without investing in new ones. Their task is to lure as many eyeballs for advertisers as they can at the lowest possible cost in order to remunerate fidgety shareholders. And that's the reason why, with the notable exception of the BBC and Channel 4's digital channels, they never put anything back into the broadcasting culture.

The hardest thing in television is to find programme ideas that trust the taste and intelligence of the audience. It's one of the problems that has dogged ITV recently. The scarce resources of a digital channel make it even tougher. If your targets are short-term and financial then you have to fall back on the things you know will win an audience - and you know they'll win an audience because they're ideas that other people have taken a risk on.

Take makeover shows. Most now seem bland and predictable, the pale, repetitive stuff that many digital channels churn out hour after hour. But it was Channel 4 and BBC2 that first had the imagination to try them out. It's difficult to imagine now, but seven years ago Big Brother was a huge risk for Channel 4. The best television comes about through creative and financial investment with a good helping of risk.

The biggest threats to these new channels and our broadcasting culture are short-termism and risk aversion - and they're inextricably linked. With More4 we decided to build a channel that reflected the tastes and values of its chosen audience - as E4 has so successfully done. This meant not relying on proven formulas or genres, but rather on daring to know the values of our audience. We also decided to speak to that audience in a particular way - witty, clever, thoughtful and enjoyable. We then commissioned programmes that embodied those values and qualities. No certainties in that.

And we had to invest in our belief. More 4 won't break even for several years; E4 is only just starting to pay its way because of sustained increases to the programme budget. But it's the most popular young-skewed digital channel in the country, so without question it's undoubtedly been worth the money and the wait. We have the same aspirations for More 4.

In six years' time, all channels will be digital. Unless we start to think differently about how to change the digital mind-set, the inherent short-term thinking and risk aversion in today's television will diminish the value of our broadcasting culture permanently.

Death of a President is perhaps unusual, but it makes a valuable point: digital doesn't have to be small, repetitive and bland. With proper investment and a healthy appetite for the unknown, it can originate programmes that get people talking. Even if it is Floyd from Kansas and Kevin Costner.

'Death of a President' is on More4 at 9pm next Monday

Will Kirsty rush in and out like Roy and Sue did?

Meanwhile, over on digital radio, old habits die harder. Notably yesterday's edition of Desert Island Discs, the first under the stewardship of Kirsty Young. Things move fast in television. But now, it seems, in radio too.

Roy Plomley (he of the bow-tie and questions such as: "Did you enjoy running the country, Prime Minister?") ran Britain's favourite list show for a solid, if slightly abbreviated 43 years. Sue Lawley dashed in and out in just 18. What then for Kirsty?

After the kind of PR flurry that can only accompany such a high-profile BBC signing, Kirsty's first gig was a bit low-key. She seemed unusually restrained but did her elegant best to cajole some genuine humour out of her first guest, Quentin Blake.

I listened patiently but my mind wandered. Instead of Quentin, I thought, what would Kirsty have chosen? What was the worst bit of launching Channel Five News? Or what's it like being Gordon Brown's favourite Scottish news-anchor friend? Instead we duly sat through Janacek, Ravel, Britten, Dowland - and Marvin Gaye.

So how long for Kirsty? Well, she's cut from distinctly more show-biz cloth than her predecessors so my guess is she won't humour this dinosaur of a format for too long. Next to YouTube and podcasts, DID is feeling less like required listening every week. Despite the legacy of Roy and Sue, I'd say two years at best. Then with the digital revolution roaring in our radio ears, I nominate Peaches Geldof - for a five-week contract.

Peter Dale is head of More4

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Database Executive - Leading Events Marketing Company - London

£23000 - £25000 per annum + 25 days holidays & pension: Ashdown Group: Databas...

Recruitment Genius: Publishing Assistant

£14000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for a...

Guru Careers: Graduate Account Executive / Digital Account Executive

£20k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Graduate Digital Account Exec ...

Guru Careers: Print Project Manager

Competitive (DOE): Guru Careers: A Print Project Manager is needed to join one...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk