General Grade's trench war

This week's spat between Channel 4 and ITV is about more than quality
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When Michael Grade arrived in his new office at Channel 4's headquarters in 1988, he did so with a threat ringing in his ears. "I am handing on to you a sacred trust," Jeremy Isaacs had warned him when the two met in a corridor. "If you screw it up, if you betray it, I'll come back and throttle you."

To date Grade remains unthrottled, which may simply be because Isaacs is too busy running the Royal Opera House to watch much television. But it seems there are plenty of others who would be happy to carry out his threat. For almost two years, ITV and C4 have been fighting a trench war over their funding arrangements. Grade argues that it is absurd and unfair for C4, notionally a minority channel, to remit money to ITV (the result of a deal struck when C4 was allowed to sell its own advertising. Half of all revenue over a certain threshold figure goes to ITV companies, in return for a guarantee against failure. The failure never came and this year C4 paid ITV pounds 74m).

ITV, well dug in behind contractual ramparts, replies that Grade did not object when the deal was agreed and besides, it needs the money to support the public service element of its own output. The row that broke out this week about whether C4 is meeting its original brief is simply a new front in an old war, a strategic thrust at what ITV perceives to be a weak part of the front.

The barrage was opened by Steve Morrison, managing director of LWT, who argued that Grade had abandoned C4's distinctive public service remit. He made his case with a blizzard of statistics and some highly selective accounts of the schedules. His account of Sunday evening, for example, turns out to be cannily myopic and offers a useful example of how reliable such arguments can be. He concedes that Channel 4's Equinox, broadcast at 7pm, is excellent. But "what happened as the channels moved out of peak time at 10.30pm? On LWT you could have seen news and then arts. C4's contribution to being distinctive? A thriller movie starring Val Kilmer and Joanne Whalley-Kilmer." This was, in fact, a low budget film noir, part of a perfectly respectable series that C4 has been running.

Morrison also neglects to mention what happened in peak time. While LWT was broadcasting The Beatles Anthology and London's Burning, C4 offered viewers Soviet Echoes, part of a distinguished series about classical music under Communism, and The Last Europeans, the final episode of a three-part history of Britain's relations with Europe. If Grade is really moving in on ITV's mainstream audiences, he seems to be losing his old touch.

The truth is, of course, that lamentations over the death of C4 are premature, and the tears are distinctly crocodilian. It is undoubtedly true that Grade has changed the nature of the channel. There are many small film-making collectives on whom the irrigating funds no longer fall, many independent film-makers who find it impossible to pursue their private (and often surprisingly productive) obsessions. The channel is less eclectic, less lumpy, less downright weird than it used to be. It is hard to imagine seeing now one of the programmes broadcast in its first year: an airmail letter from New Zealand feminists that was solemnly read aloud as the camera panned down the writing paper. Even defenders of Grade sense the change of temperature. "It doesn't have the passion about experiment that it used to have," says Anthony Smith, one of the founding fathers of the channel, "but I certainly don't think the ideal has been betrayed."

Some of the serious programmes, however, are marred by an addiction to marketable controversy. Secret Lives does not match BBC2's Timewatch in its editorial rigour or scale; Without Walls is capable of fitful brilliance but, as Melvyn Bragg pointed out in a follow-up bombardment, it hardly constitutes lavish commitment to the arts.

It is true, too, that Grade's instincts are essentially commercial. It is hardly surprising that ITV executives, already nervous about the potential effect of Channel 5 on their revenues, should fidget with their calculators when Grade describes their network as C4's "dominant commercial competitor" (my italics). That is not the language of someone who thinks naturally of complementarity, or of a humble subsidiary role. One reason Grade's ITV adversaries are so rattled is because he has transformed the later part of his schedules, replacing discussion programmes with popular American imports. This hits ITV where it is vulnerable because of the News at Ten break.

When Isaacs opposed the choice of his successor in 1988, he put the case with characteristic terseness: "I said that he was a commercially minded television executive who would seek to take the station downmarket, make it more popular, prepare it for privatisation". Grade would probably admit proudly to commercial nous but has already been acquitted of the last charge (he fought hard to prevent privatisation, foregoing considerable personal enrichment in the process). Presumably Isaacs did not think it would be admirable for his replacement to make the station less popular - he was simply searching for a form of words that would encompass the odd obligation of a public service channel not to be too successful.

In fact, Grade has made the channel more popular, but an examination of the schedules hardly bears out the suggestion that he has plunged downmarket to do so. The day on which the C4 schedule included snooker, The Munsters, Brookside, a sit-com called Rude Health and Hill Street Blues does not provide evidence of Grade's baleful hand - they were broadcast on 4 January 1988, the day he arrived. As one independent producer points out: "It's not that the downmarket stuff wasn't always in the schedules to begin with - it's just that Michael's doing it more successfully."

Nor is it easy to equate more recent schedules with a programme of relentless commercialism. The "Battered Britain" season, a recent examination of the nation's social health, gave an amount of time to unpalatable, "unsexy" material which (perhaps rightly) would have been unthinkable on any other channel. This week's programming has included consumer series about finance and education, programmes about disability, documentary strands such as Dispatches and Secret Lives, Paul Watson's film about a Liverpool factory and a series of short films about distinctive churches. Though American programming has increased greatly, it is arguable that C4's purchase of sit-coms such as Frasier and Rosanne has done much to improve television culture in the field of comedy.

In short, Grade's C4 is still a very long way from being ITV by other means. But it is no longer the amateur channel which, in the finest sense, it was under Isaacs. That may be why the professionals are so bad-tempered.