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2nd November

Channel 4 begins broadcasting with a remit to support innovative work

"Our programmes aim to uncover and discover art, to let art shape television, not vice versa." - Michael Kustow, Arts Editor Channel 4

Channel 4 began broadcasting on Tuesday, 2nd November 1982. The station, a public service broadcaster whose funds came from selling advertising space, had no production facilities of its own; independent companies produced all of its output. From its conception, independent and experimental film and video makers saw the potential in Channel Four as a means for bringing challenging work to a wider audience, as well as securing funding for alternative practices.

The station was required to facilitate innovative output and provide programming for minority audiences by the Broadcasting Act of 1980, and film and video artists lobbied for a degree of influence in its direction: members of the Independent Filmmakers' Association sat on the Production Board alongside representatives of the commercial companies that provided funds to the channel.

In terms of arts output, "innovation" proved to be a contested notion. While many thought that Channel 4 would provide a unique opportunity for the broadcast of artists' moving image, there were fears that its reliance on commercial funding - coupled with the fact that the Conservative government considered the channel to be in a probationary period for its first few years - might inhibit more challenging work from being broadcast.

The funding provided by Channel 4 was initially weighted toward the workshop sector. It wasn't until the mid 1980s that more formally focussed film and video work had a significant presence on the fourth channel, as the Arts Council began to fund opportunities for artists on television.

When artists' TV did arrive on Four, in the form of series like Dadarama (1984) and Ghosts in the Machine (1986-7), it established new paradigms for art on television: both series, for example, showed artists' film and video in itself, rather than as part of arts documentaries. Another important slot for film and video art was The Eleventh Hour, which during its run broadcast programmes devoted to Super-8 filmmaking and scratch video, and featured the work of artists David Hall, Jeremy Welsh, Gorilla Tapes and Malcolm Le Grice as well as films and videos from the workshop movement. The channel also gave space to single works by Derek Jarman and Susan Hiller.

For a short time, artists' works and the more politically engaged workshop productions lent a tenuous plurality to art on television. The programmes were relatively successful, and Channel Four's provision for artists' film and video eventually led the BBC to begin screening experimental work as well. By the next decade however, Channel Four's commitment to experimental work began to wane, superseded by a desire for more populist programming and a turn away from what was seen as too "oppositional" an approach in the programming of the 1980s.

Tom Roberts

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Illustration from a Channel 4 booklet to accompany the 4 on 4 series of panel discussions

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