From the start, the channel set out to provide an alternative to the existing channels (which at the time were BBC1, BBC2, and ITV). In doing so it sometimes, in the eyes of its critics (who included the public decency campaigner Mary Whitehouse), overstepped the boundaries of acceptability, but it has arguably led to a liberalisation of the UK television industry.
Initially, the station was managed by the Independent Broadcasting Authority through subscription from the ITV franchise holders. In return, advertising on the channel (and advertising revenue) was handled by the ITV regions, thus overcoming any problems a public service broadcaster might have in attracting commercial advertisers.
In 1990, a new Thatcherite broadcasting act altered the organisation of Channel 4, transforming it into a public corporation with a board partly appointed by the new Independent Television Commission. While its original remit was preserved, the channel now had to manage its own advertising (a potential disaster for a public service broadcaster), with a 'safety net' guaranteed minimum income should the revenue fall too low (which it so far has not). This safety net was funded by large insurance payments which the company had to make to the ITV companies. These premiums were phased out by the government in 1998.
One of the channel's strengths is its comedy. In the early days they screened The Comic Strip Presents, a highly innovative series of hour-long one-off comedies produced by a rotating line-up of alternative comedians such as Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Peter Cook, Peter Richardson, and Alexei Sayle. Latterly they have have aired cutting-edge comedy shows such as Brass Eye, The Mark Thomas Product, and Peter Kay's Phoenix Nights.
The first voice ever heard on Channel 4 was that of continuity announcer Paul Coia, who intoned: "I'm very pleased to be able to say, Welcome to Channel Four". The first programme to air on the channel was the teatime game show Countdown, fronted by Richard Whiteley; it is still running to this day.
In contrast to the other terrestrial TV channels, Channel 4 makes few of the programmes it broadcasts, partly as a result of the terms under which it was founded. Its critically acclaimed news service, Channel 4 News, is supplied by ITN, and the channel commissions many of its programmes from independent producers.
Channel 4 launched a subscription film channel, FilmFour, in November 1998. It is available on analogue and digital satellite television and digital terrestrial television. Companion services, such as FilmFour +1, FilmFour World, FilmFour Extreme, and the recently launched Film Four Weekly are also available on some digital services. E4, a digital entertainment channel previously available on the Internet, was launched in January 2001.
Channel 4 has had a long record of success in funding the production of films through Channel Four Films, later renamed FilmFour in 1998 to coincide with the launch of its digital channels. Among its biggest successes are The Madness of King George, The Crying Game, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. However, this dedicated film-making wing was effectively closed in 2002 as a cost-cutting measure in the face of substantial losses.