British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Channel 4: Education with a Difference

Dorothy Hobson looks at the legacy of Channel 4’s eduational output and the role played by the late Naomi Sargant.

About the Author: Dorothy Hobson is Senior Lecturer & Course Leader at the University of Wolverhampton and the author of Soap Opera (2002) and Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy (2007). She is currently researching a book about adolescents and the Media.


In 1982 British television had only three terrestrial channels: BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. On 2 November at 4.40 the test card faded and the long awaited fourth channel began its transmission. It was charged by Parliament to appeal to ‘tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV’, to be ‘innovative and experimental in content and form’, and to ‘disseminate education and educational programmes’. The channel had to find new audiences and give a voice to new producers. The most significant thing about Channel 4 when it was established was that it was unlike any other television company. Its structure was based on that of book publishing and there was no in-house production, but an innovatory approach based on the concept of the commissioning editor. Jeremy Isaacs, who was the first and most significant chief executive of the channel, chose the method of operation and commissioning and the selection of both the subjects and genres that the channel would address. The choice of the new commissioning editors to work on those areas was crucial in the development of the channel.

The inclusion of education was part of the Broadcasting Act (1980) and one of Isaacs’ first appointments was Naomi Sargant as Senior Commissioning Editor for Education. It was an unusual and inspired choice. Naomi had no experience of television but vast experience of many aspects of education both as a lecturer and immediately before her appointment, as Pro-Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs at the Open University and Professor of Applied Social Research. She had experience as a member of the Advisory Council for Adult and Continuing Education and had knowledge of how people learned and she applied that intellectual vigour to the planning of her own educational output. She told me that Isaacs wanted educational programmes to be available all the year round – a utility like a water supply. Not a set of segregated or ghettoized slots, but programmes which were at convenient viewing times and which adhered to his philosophy for the genre. They believed that educational programmes should have quantity, variety, regularity and flexibility with a commitment to develop the area. Naomi also convinced Isaacs of the value of repeats in educational theory.  She knew from the Open University programmes that repeating a programme gave other opportunities to view and that the commitment of an audience to educational programmes often depended on more than one opportunity to view. There were many educational programmes in the first schedule but they were not of the convention type. As Jeremy Isaacs wrote in his book Storm over Four (1989), ‘Naomi Sargant’s aim was not to equip viewers to attain academic qualifications, but to foster in them a deepening awareness of the world and of their own potential in it’.

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