The Channel 4 myth

Channel 4's director of programmes (Letters, 11 March) recycles the myth that "establishing new digital services" was a "specific requirement placed upon the channel by the Secretary of State for Media in 1997". What are the facts? For several years, Channel 4 campaigned to remove the formula in the 1990 Broadcasting Act whereby a proportion of its revenue above a given threshold was allocated to ITV in exchange for a guarantee to supplement Channel 4's budget in certain circumstances. That campaign was fought entirely on the basis of redirecting the retrieved money into originated programmes, including films. The decision in principle to end the formula, and for the funds released to be "reinvested in new British productions", was taken in 1996. Even in 1997, Channel 4 was stating publicly that "all the money" returned would be spent on "original production and training". Only when the Channel 4 licence was formally varied, in February 1998, was the phrase "as well as meeting its new digital commitments" added to the Channel 4 requirement to "allocate the funds to UK film and programme production and training". At this point, the only such commitment was to digital terrestrial television transmission costs, as was confirmed in Channel 4's 1997 annual report, published in 1998.

That report talked of plans to create a subscription film channel (launched as FilmFour in November 1998) and "some free-to-air services which develop Channel 4's strengths in education programming".

By this time, although Channel 4 offered a list of ten ways it would spend the ITV money, less than half the cash was being spent on production. By the following year, free-to-air services and education had disappeared from the channel's digital objectives, to be replaced by pay-TV services offering entertainment and horse racing.

David Elstein
London SW15

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Far from the Promised Land