Channel 4 is a British public-service television broadcaster that began transmission on 2 November 1982. Although largely commercially self-funded, it is ultimately publicly owned; originally a subsidiary of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), the station is now owned and operated by Channel Four Television Corporation, a public corporation of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which was established in 1990 and came into operation in 1993. With the conversion of the Wenvoe transmitter group in Wales to digital on 31 March 2010, Channel 4 became a UK-wide TV channel for the first time.
The channel was established to provide a fourth television service to the United Kingdom in addition to the licence-funded BBC One and BBC Two, and the single commercial broadcasting network ITV.
Before Channel 4 and S4C, Britain had three terrestrial television services: BBC1, BBC2, and ITV. The Broadcasting Act 1980 began the process of adding a fourth, and Channel 4, along with its Welsh counterpart, was formally created by an Act of Parliament in 1982. After some months of test broadcasts, it began scheduled transmissions on 2 November 1982.
The notion of a second commercial broadcaster in the United Kingdom had been around since the inception of ITV in 1954 and its subsequent launch in 1955; the idea of an “ITV2” (which came in 1998) was long expected and pushed for. Indeed, television sets sold throughout the 1970s and early 1980s had a spare tuning button labelled “ITV/IBA 2”. Throughout ITV’s history and until Channel 4 finally became a reality, a perennial dialogue existed between the GPO, the government, the ITV companies and other interested parties, concerning the form such an expansion of commercial broadcasting would take. It was most likely politics which had the biggest impact in leading to a delay of almost three decades before the second commercial channel became a reality.
One clear benefit of the “late arrival” of the channel was that its frequency allocations at each transmitter had already been arranged in the early 1960s, when the launch of an ITV2 was highly anticipated. This led to very good coverage across most of the country and few problems of interference with other UK-based transmissions; a stark contrast to the problems associated with Channel 5’s launch almost 15 years later.
At the time the fourth service was being considered, a movement in Wales lobbied for the creation of dedicated service that would air Welsh-language programmes, then only catered for at “off peak” times on BBC Wales and HTV. The campaign was taken so seriously by Gwynfor Evans, former president of Plaid Cymru, that he threatened the government with a hunger strike were it not to honour the plans.
The result was that Channel 4 as seen by the rest of the United Kingdom would be replaced in Wales by Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) (Channel Four Wales). Operated by a specially created authority, S4C would air programmes in Welsh made by HTV, the BBC and independent companies. Initially limited frequency space meant that Channel 4 could not be broadcast alongside S4C, though some Channel 4 programmes would be aired at less popular times on the Welsh variant, a practice that carried on up until the closure of S4C’s analogue transmissions in 2010 when S4C became a fully Welsh channel.
Since then, carriage on digital cable, satellite and digital terrestrial has introduced Channel 4 to Welsh homes where it is now universally available.
The first voice heard on Channel 4’s opening day of Tuesday 2 November 1982 was that of continuity announcer Paul Coia who said:
Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be able to say to you, welcome to Channel Four.
Following the announcement, the channel headed into a montage of clips from its programmes set to the station’s signature tune, “Fourscore”, written by David Dundas, which would form the basis of the station’s jingles for its first decade. The first programme to air on the channel was the teatime game show Countdown, at 16:45 produced by Yorkshire Television. The first person to be seen on Channel 4 was Richard Whiteley with Ted Moult being the second. The first woman on the channel, contrary to popular belief, was not Whiteley’s Countdown co-host Carol Vorderman but a lexicographer only ever identified as Mary.
Whiteley opened the show with the words:
As the countdown to a brand new channel ends, a brand new countdown begins.
On its first day, Channel 4 also broadcast controversial soap opera Brookside, which ran until 2003.
On its launch, Channel 4 committed itself to providing an alternative to the existing channels, an agenda in part set out by its remit which required the provision of programming to minority groups.
In step with its remit, the channel became well received both by minority groups and the arts and cultural worlds during this period, especially under founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs, where the channel gained a reputation for programmes on the contemporary arts. Channel 4 co-commissioned Robert Ashley’s ground-breaking television opera Perfect Lives,which it premiered over several episodes in 1984. The channel often did not receive mass audiences for much of this period, however, as might be expected for a station focusing on minority interest.
Channel 4 also began the funding of independent films, such as the Merchant-Ivory docudrama The Courtesans of Bombay, during this time.
In 1992, Channel 4 also faced its first libel case by Jani Allan, a South African journalist, who objected to her representation in Nick Broomfield’s documentary The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife.
In September 1993, the channel broadcast the direct-to-TV documentary film Beyond Citizen Kane, in which it displayed the dominant position of the Rede Globo television network, and discussed its influence, power and political connections in Brazil.
After control of the station passed from the Channel Four Television Company to the Channel Four Television Corporation in 1993, a shift in broadcasting style took place. Instead of aiming for the fringes of society, it began to focus on the edges of the mainstream, and the centre of the mass market itself. It began to show many US programmes in peak viewing time, far more than it had previously done. It gave such shows as Friends and ER their UK premières.
In the early 2000s, Channel 4 began broadcasting reality formats such as Big Brother and obtained the rights to broadcast mass appeal sporting events like cricket and horse racing. This new direction increased ratings and revenues.
In addition, the corporation launched a number of new television channels through its new 4Ventures offshoot, including Film4, At the Races, E4 and More4.
The following is a list of the 10 most watched shows on Channel 4 since launch, based on Live +7 data supplied by BARB, and archival data published by Channel 4.
|Programme or film
|A Woman of Substance
|4 January 1985
|27 July 2001
|A Woman of Substance
|3 January 1985
|Four Weddings and a Funeral
|15 November 1995
|A Woman of Substance
|2 January 1985
|8 January 1985
|The Great British Bake Off
|30 October 2018
|The Great British Bake Off
|31 October 2017
|26 July 2002
|Big Fat Gypsy Weddings
|8 February 2011
Since 1957 ITV had produced schools programming, which became an obligation. In 1987, five years after the station was launched, the IBA afforded ITV free carriage of these programmes during Channel 4’s then-unused weekday morning hours. This arrangement allowed the ITV companies to fulfil their obligation to provide schools programming, whilst allowing ITV itself to broadcast regular programmes complete with advertisements. During the times in which schools programmes were aired Central Television provided most of the continuity with play-out originating from Birmingham.
Since its launch in 1982, Channel 4 has used the same logo which consists of a stylised numeral “4” made up of nine differently-shaped blocks. The logo was designed by Martin Lambie-Nairn and his brother Robinson and was the first channel in the UK to depict an ident made using advanced computer generation (the first electronically-generated ident was on BBC Two in 1979, but this was two-dimensional). It was designed in conjunction with Bo Gehring Aviation of Los Angeles and originally depicted the “4” in red, yellow, green, blue and purple. The music accompanying the ident was called “Fourscore” and was composed by Lord David Dundas, later released as a single alongside a B-side, “Fourscore Two”, although neither appeared in the UK charts. In November 1992, “Fourscore” was replaced by new music.
In 1996, Channel 4 commissioned Tomato Films to revamp the “4”, which resulted in the “Circles” idents showing four white circles forming up transparently over various scenes, with the “4” logo depicted in white in one of the circles.
In 1999, Spin redesigned the logo to feature in a single square which sat on the right-hand side of the screen, whilst various stripes would move along from left to right, often lighting the squared “4” up. Like the “Circles” idents, the stripes would be interspersed with various scenes potentially related to the upcoming programme.
The logo was made three-dimensional again in 2004 when it was depicted in filmed scenes that show the blocks forming the “4” logo for less than a second before the action moves away again.
In 2015, the logo was disassembled completely to allow the blocks to appear as parts of a nature scene, sometimes featuring a strange dancing creature and sometimes being excavated for scientific study, one being studied under a microscope and showing a tardigrade. The second wave of these idents, launched in 2017, depict a giant creature made of the “4” blocks (made to look almost like a person) interacting with everyday life, sometimes shouting the “Fourscore” theme as a foghorn.