So imagine this: You go to see the guy who runs Channel 4 and after an hour’s conversation about TV, he suddenly says: “Our viewers are very discerning, you know. People don’t sit down and watch this channel for a whole evening. And I’m perfectly happy with that. In fact, it’s our greatest strength.”
Couldn’t happen, right?
Not with the Channel 4 you’re thinking of, it couldn’t. But this Channel 4 has nothing to do with KNBC-TV, the folks over in Burbank who bring you Paul Moyer and Kelly Lange for news at 11.
This one is quite a different proposition. It is the smallest and newest of Britain’s four TV channels, with an overall audience share of just more than 10%, and since its debut 12 years ago it has staked a claim as one of the world’s most original and innovative broadcast entities. Its contributions to the world of filmmaking will be celebrated at the UK/LA Festival with screenings tonight through Sunday at the Directors Guild.
Channel 4 was set up by an act of Parliament to provide alternative viewing for non-mainstream audiences. The channel produces no shows of its own, but commissions from independent TV companies or buys from other countries. Consequently, Channel 4’s programming is a rich, heady, some might say bizarre mix: strong on documentaries, the arts and shows about ethnic groups and Britain’s gay community.
Its schedule is also lightly sprinkled with what Michael Grade, 51, Channel 4’s chief executive, calls “the literate, intelligent end” of U.S. network fare--skillfully written shows like “NYPD Blue,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Frasier,” “Northern Exposure” and “Roseanne.”
But Channel 4 may be best known for its enthusiastic backing of theatrical movies. It has poured money into some 180 films, most of them British, since its inception, and in a typical year helps back 10 or 12 films with a total of $15 million-$20 million. In some cases, notably Stephen Frears’ 1985 hit “My Beautiful Laundrette,” the channel wholly finances films. Recent movies made at least partly with Channel 4 money include “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “The Crying Game,” “Howards End” and Mike Leigh’s “High Hopes.”
“It’s a set-up Americans cannot comprehend,” says Grade, 51. “It’s not only our programming. They don’t see why a broadcaster would finance theatrical films. It seems to them that’s the competition.”
So why do it? Grade explains Channel 4 is an equity participant in films it backs, which means it shares profits from hits like “Four Weddings” and “The Crying Game.” It also holds the British broadcasting license for those films: “Our losses, when they occur, are mitigated by the fact that we can use these movies on air,” he says.
“When we air ‘The Crying Game’ on Channel 4, it will be a huge event. And we’ve found that we get even bigger audience figures the second, third and fourth time we air films like “Beautiful Laundrette.”
Last year was something of a high point in terms of Channel 4’s visibility within the theatrical film community. Three films backed by Channel 4 won an astonishing 16 Oscar nominations between them. “The Crying Game,” for which Channel 4 put up one-third of the budget, gained six; “Howards End,” backed 25%, grabbed nine; “Damage,” which received one nod, was 10% financed.
Despite this, when Grade visits America he usually encounters people who assume Channel 4 is part of the BBC. “You get used to it,” he sighs. “Little by little the message gets across, but you have to keep flying the flag.”
This is one reason Grade is in Los Angeles this week for the tribute, which will include a question-and-answer session about the state of Britain’s film industry and Channel 4’s role in it.
The tribute runs over three days and includes films partly or wholly financed by the channel: Ken Loach’s new movie, “Ladybird, Ladybird,” “My Beautiful Laundrette,” “Shopping” from first-time director Paul Anderson, and “Danny Boy,” an obscure 1982 film directed by Neil Jordan and starring Stephen Rea, who reunited a decade later in “The Crying Game.”
Also in the festival is the Los Angeles premiere of “Lipstick on Your Collar,” the final part of the late Dennis Potter’s trilogy of dramatic series for TV, which started with “Pennies From Heaven” and “The Singing Detective.” Like those works, “Lipstick” features the device of characters lip-syncing to pop hits of the era being portrayed; in this case, it is the mid-1950s with the Suez Canal crisis looming in Britain and rock ‘n’ roll threatening to overturn the values of an older generation.
The tribute offers a cross-section of the challenging provocative programming which has given the channel a distinct edge among Britain’s youngish, upscale viewers. Not included in the tribute, but also fully funded by Channel 4 (at a cost of $8 million) was last year’s gay-themed series “Tales of the City.” It was shown on PBS this year, but the candor of the material made the public broadcaster shy away from controversy and express reluctance to air a projected second series.
“One thing you always believed about the States was that success is rewarded,” Grade says sourly. “And in anybody’s terms “Tales of the City” was the biggest success PBS had had for years--in terms of ink, critical acclaim and sheer numbers of people watching. And they (PBS) turned their back on it, all because allegedly it wouldn’t play in Oklahoma or places like that. It’s very depressing and sad. But that’s the end of it, unless a sugar daddy comes along.”
Still, Grade accepts that controversy is likely to follow a programming philosophy such as Channel 4’s. “We always try to do things differently from other people,” he says. “We throw the balls up in the air and turn things upside-down.”
This is not idle talk; Channel 4 is amassing a tradition for subverting classic television genres. A Channel 4-commissioned sitcom, “Drop the Dead Donkey,” set in a TV newsroom, has an extra twist; it is literally topical. Each week’s episode is littered with references to and jokes about the week’s news.
Grade characterizes the Establishment BBC channels as “very backward-looking. Not a night goes by when there isn’t a retrospective, an archive or anniversary show. The BBC’s like a museum. And ITV’s wall-to-wall entertainment. That has its place, but if you want TV that’s topical, relevant and about the way you live, you have to watch Channel 4.”
After being a sportswriter for several years, Grade worked in television in Britain beginning in 1973. In 1981 he accepted an offer to join Norman Lear as president of Embassy Television. In 1988, he became chief executive of upscale Channel 4. He is generally thought to have steered it skillfully, increasing its audience share gradually while adhering to its original remit to serve minority and alternative viewing interests. Grade may have turned 50, yet as a London critic recently remarked, he remains the nearest thing to a Wunderkind in British TV.
Grade believes predictive research provides all the wrong answers: “Go and ask the public what they’d like to see, and they’ll say: more shows like ‘Roseanne’ or ‘Cheers.’ That’s useless.
“Do you think Shakespeare walked up and down outside the Globe Theatre, asking the crowds what they fancied seeing next? Television programs are living, organic things, not commodities.”
* For more information and a complete schedule, call (213) 466-FILM.