Channel 4 exists as an oddity on the UK television landscape. An advertiser-funded network with a public service remit, it must perpetually skate a line between making programming edgy enough to secure the younger audience its advertisers crave, but also with enough educational worth so as to fulfil its PSB commitments.
Indeed, the channel’s mission statement as decreed by the Communications Act 2003 is that it must demonstrate “innovation, experiment and creativity in the form and content of programs,” while also making sure it “exhibits a distinctive character,” setting the template for a marked difference from the BBC.
Such a brief can, at times, inevitably lead to controversy for the network, with programming such as 2007′s The Great Global Warming Swindle having drawn criticism and complaint.
But more often than not, the team at C4 uses its unique remit as a launch pad for a host of innovative, risqué and often quite brilliant programs. And in 2011, the network’s factual team seized the bull by the horns to deliver a slate of fascinating, innovative and memorable programming.
Chief among its successes has been Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, a series spun out of what was originally a one-off doc. The series became C4′s eighth highest-rated program ever, with ratings of more than seven million viewers for one episode.
Such has been the cultural impact of the series that U.S. network TLC will next year air an American version of the Firecracker Films format, at which point you’ll be able to draw a transatlantic line back to the bold commissioning of a few British C4 execs.
Elsewhere, Hippo: Nature’s Wild Feast – a live streaming multi-platform event that showed a hippo carcass being devoured over a number of days – pushed the channel’s natural history coverage further in the experimental direction started by the breakthrough Inside Nature’s Giants. Perhaps only on C4 could you find an online clip entitled “Croc eats Hippo’s Penis.”
Of course, there was some controversy, most notably with Mummifying Alan, a one-off doc in which terminally ill taxi driver Alan Billis offered up his corpse to be transformed into a mummy to help scientists rediscover the ancient Egyptian method of body preservation. Perhaps typically of the channel this year, most of the controversy came before the special was aired. Once it had broadcast, the reception from critics was mostly positive.
C4′s factual team heads into 2012 with a new man at the helm, with long-serving head of docs Hamish Mykura having departed at the end of last year and former head of specialist factual Ralph Lee now serving in the new role of head of factual. Here he talks to realscreen about the plans for the year ahead.
How would you describe C4′s creative remit?
“Restlessly creative” is, I guess, how I’d describe it. It’s all about ambition and about creative and editorial innovation, trying to do the new – we’re always a bit unhappy to settle and always trying to do things in new ways.
What was your top 2011 factual highlight on C4?
Mummifying Alan was definitely one of my super highlights, because we’re always searching for things that take big, mainstream subjects and give completely new insights into them. There are some projects like this one where you really feel the boldness of the idea, the risk involved in the venture, and the difficulty of the access, and I think it led to one of the most remarkable bits of TV last year.
What are your key aims for 2012?
In specialist factual we want to have more presenters and more unique mediators of subject areas – people like Jimmy Doherty and Guy Martin are really key for us. Also, we’re keen not to lose sight of documentary formats, which have been slightly less prominent in the last couple of years, since Secret Millionaire and Undercover Boss. A lot of people are chasing the football of Gypsy Weddings and access-driven docs, but formats are still of real interest to us.