Ray Snoddy on Broadcasting

Sour grapes maybe, but does Allen have a point about C4?
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The Independent Online

Of course Charles Allen's Edinburgh attack on Channel 4 was a particularly virulent case of sour grapes. And it was certainly a useful rhetorical device to enable him to avoid having to spend too much time examining his own shortcomings at ITV. But set aside, just for a moment, the usual broadcasting industry axe-grinding and morass of contradictory motives that lay behind the attack, and just ask the "What if?" question. What if despite everything, Charles Allen has a point - or at least a partial point - and that Channel 4 has a case to answer?

The charge sheet would contain the following items:

* That it has moved further and further away from its original remit, happily embracing an increasingly commercial schedule in pursuit of ratings and profits.

* That while it has always used popular programming, including American imports and quiz shows, to subsidise more demanding output, now mendacious, voyeuristic programming such as Big Brother has become almost the defining characteristic of the channel.

* That it is trying to have it both ways - enjoying all the public-service-broadcasting privileges while doing exactly what it likes and defining its remit any old way it chooses. Or as Allen characterised it, the 25-year-old who earns a wage but still lives at home and doesn't contribute.

IF YOU were in a particularly grumpy mood you could also ask about where the current equivalents of A Very British Coup, Porterhouse Blue, The Tube, Father Ted or even The Snowman are. So, guilty or not?

It's almost impossible to prove either way because too many subjective judgements are involved. Certainly other commercial broadcasters, not just ITV, are united in their angry view that Channel 4 has moved in increasingly commercial directions and that its advertising-financed digital channels are making life more and more difficult for commercial competitors.

At least one of them, More4, is in the honourable Channel 4 tradition of causing outrage with it's "tasteless" film portraying the "shockingly real" assassination of President Bush.

It is noticeable however that some of the channel's most staunch supporters have also expressed concern. Earlier this year Channel 4's founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs denounced Big Brother, while praising the channel's news coverage, its documentaries and many high quality one-off productions.

Then Isaacs added almost wistfully: Channel 4 could "favour the arts, cut down on the sex, add something to its great strengths in history and archaeology. Something for the choosiest of highbrows would not go amiss; instead of Eurotrash, how about European life, culture, politics, languages, culture?'

Naturally people like Isaacs are denounced by Channel 4 as "men in tweed suits" who use the Lord Birt method of debate - smearing opponents with a sneering phrase rather than dealing with the arguments.

Channel 4 has great strengths. Channel 4 News is simply the best in the business. And why, exactly, has the BBC never offered a serious one-hour news programme? While the one-hour Dispatches has been given a greatly increased run, Panorama gets cut to 30 minutes albeit it in a weekday slot at last.

Interestingly, it was the Channel 4 chief executive Andy Duncan who ordered more editions of Dispatches because he thought the balance had tipped a little too much away from public service. It may be time for a few more such interventions.

Yet look at tonight's schedule and it would be very hard to argue that Channel 4 is going to hell in a handcart.

Apart from a Dispatches on airport security there is The Miracle of Stairway B on those who escaped from the World Trade Centre and The Beginner's Guide to L Ron Hubbard.

It certainly doesn't look like ITV, but without a sustained and comprehensive analysis, the only option at the moment is to reach for that very useful Scottish verdict: not proven.

Luckily, a systematic look at Channel 4's remit and the extent to which it successfully delivers public service broadcasting is on the way.

In July the communications regulator Ofcom announced a financial review of the Channel 4 group, but will also look at how it "defines and implements" its public service remit and try to identify "relevant performance indicators and benchmarks for current and future performance."

Performance indicators. That sounds promising and should certainly cheer up Charles Allen.

And it will be interesting to see what Ofcom makes of one of Channel 4's coming contributions to public service broadcasting - Wank Week.

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