Is this a magic formula to attract young people back to television?
E4's hit teen shows include Skins and Misfits but it's still criticised for making 'vacuous pap'. The controller Angela Jain argues her case to Ian Burrell
Monday 07 December 2009
Angela Jain is frank enough to admit that she doesn't read newspapers much these days. Just as well. The same day we meet, the Daily Telegraph describes the E4 network that she has run for the past two and a half years as "a channel that chiefly churns out vacuous pap for the young and empty-headed".
That's not what she needs when she's only days away from giving birth, but she explains that she won't be introducing any serious-minded content to the channel anytime soon. If you want a commission from Jain, you will have to make her laugh. "Anyone who knows me knows that the first question I say is: 'Is it funny?' That's really, really important to me," she says. "Everything must have an underlying wit."
Never mind the vacuous pap, this is the channel that brought us Skins, the coolest and most successful online teen drama of recent years, the very funny suburban schoolboy comedy The Inbetweeners, and now Misfits, which blew away even that same Telegraph critic, who gushed that it "blazed into the screen with such a terrific sense of humour, self-confidence and brio."
When it gets it right, E4 has a wit and credibility that sets it apart from its chief rivals in the battle for the young audience, BBC Three and ITV2. Jain says her role is not a didactic one. "I run an entertainment channel for young people. Even if those young people have got responsibilities, I want them to leave them at the door when they watch E4," she says. "I want them to be properly entertained, I don't want to be judgmental and I don't want to preach to them. I just want to put stuff out there and they can decide what they think of it."
It's not just young people. The racy Skins, with its good-looking cast and a liberal attitude to sex and drugs, attracts plenty of older viewers too. So does The Inbetweeners, which follows a group of hapless teenage boys in their attempts to get laid (and has just been nominated in two categories in The Broadcast Awards). The show was recommended to me by Richard Curtis, 51, the co-creator of Blackadder, who watches it with his children.
When it's put to Jain that some of her programmes are watched by an older audience as well, she at first tries to deny it. "No-oooh, no they don't," she says. "I think our audience is made up of 60 per cent 'youngs' – some shows, like Inbetweeners, go as high as 70%. So that's not true at all. Regardless, the 16-34s is measured and we are the market leader, so if we scoop up some extra people I don't mind. I'm sure some under 16s watch our programmes and they shouldn't be watching them – but I'm not their parents."
She also rails against the view expressed on some websites that the third and most recent series of Skins, in which the programme was radically altered by the writer Bryan Elsley, was not as good as the opening two series. "Why would they say that? Boring farts! I think that's totally unfair," she complains. "Changing the cast was a bold move and requires courage. When you take risks some people will not like what you do [but] all I know is that series three was the most watched series, so some people did love it."
A fourth series starts early in the new year although, as with any "cool" programme, early adopters will go elsewhere when it becomes too popular. "There's an inherent snobbery about moving on, isn't there?" asks Jain. The Inbetweeners, meanwhile, is still benefiting from word of mouth. While less than 500,000 watched the start of series one, more than 1.2 million tuned in for the opener of the second series. Writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley are writing series three.
E4 is still a minority channel, though its audience share of 4.55 per cent is up 11 per cent year-on-year and is greater than that of BBC Three and ITV2, which both have more money to spend. And Jain has high hopes for Misfits, a new high-concept drama with a quality script written by Howard Overman, which has drawn comparison with the American show Heroes – but on a lower budget and with a British sense of humour.
The show features a group of young people on community service orders who are shaken from their boredom by the discovery that they have supernatural powers. In spite of the outlandish theme, Jain says the characters have "an authenticity, a believability which I think is important".
It is also more grittily urban than the rest of E4's output. "We looked and developed quite a lot of scripts before we came upon Misfits, but we could see something in it and it is coming to air in less than a year," she says.
Ricky Gervais is also now part of the E4 team, script-editing PhoneShop, a new comedy that debuted on Channel 4's Comedy Showcase last month featuring the strange subculture that exists among self-confident youths who sell us our tools of mobile communication.
"Everyone's got a mobile phone and has had some encounter in a phone shop. It's also about those difficult dead-end jobs everyone has had at least once in their lives," says Jain, pictured right. She was so impressed with the pilot for PhoneShop, created by Phil Bowker of Talkback Thames, that she has commissioned a six-part series for next year. And then there's Seth MacFarlane, the creator of the hit US animation Family Guy, who will bring its spin-off, The Cleveland Show, to the channel next year.
By the time Jain comes back from her maternity leave she is hoping there will be a bit more cash washing around Channel 4's Horseferry Road headquarters following the demise of Big Brother. That will allow her to widen the E4 offering beyond comedy and drama, she says. "With the freeing-up of some money in 2011 it will be nice to broaden that out a bit, with more live events, which feel like a luxury when money is tight."
But don't expect anything too educational. "I wouldn't go there," she says. "I'm running a purely commercial channel for profit. I interpret my public service requirement as breaking through new talent. We give so much new talent their break on and off screen and I'm really proud of that."
As she temporarily hands over the reins of the channel to Paul Mortimer and Kevin Lygo, Jain argues there is "a common thread through all E4 commissions" and that even the American buy-ins, such as Glee, which is set in a US high school, have a realism and dry humour that British teens relate to.
"Yes, the characters of Skins are aspirational, but equally they don't take themselves too seriously and I think that's the Britishness about all our shows," she says. "I don't want anyone, or anything, to be taken too seriously."
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