Can Channel 4 Stave Off The Digital Content Uprising?

In an attempt to address the lack of representation on television, particularly in their primetime slots, one of the UK’s largest programmers, Channel 4, has avidly set their eyes toward the web for bankable black talent, bringing in YouTube stars, comedians, and MC’s who have already found major success among young people online. With campaigns such as Netflix’s ‘Strong Black Lead‘, an initiative that promises commitment to diverse storytelling and the string of Black-led entertainment channels such as The Wall of Comedy and Million Youth Media, it could be said that broadcasters are playing catch up when it comes to shows which are aimed at addressing this.

The advent of new shows such as The Big Narstie Show and Peng Life, which both premiered on Channel 4 this summer, appear to be a start in the right direction for the broadcasters. The hosts of these shows, Tyrone Lindo, better known as Grime MC and Agony Uncle Big Narstie, comedian Mo Gilligan and YouTuber Elijah Quashie (The Chicken Connoisseur) had all been given the viral stress-test and seal of approval by the culture. Big Narstie’s ‘Uncle Pain’ series had been a staple in the cultural diet of web-conscious consumers since 2012, with his sage advice and heavy flow of GIF-able content garnering tens of thousands of views on ‘The Grime Report’ YouTube channel and finding its way into the meme library of many, all whilst being one of the most consistently productive Grime MC’s of the past decade. Although Mo The Comedian’s rise may have seemed quicker than the Grime veterans, both journeys have seen a parallel rising social media presence and internet fame being leveraged into national acclaim. Mo Gilligan, with 400k followers on Instagram and a recent sold out nationwide tour is now a far cry from his stories of performing at open mics in close to empty venues. 

Peng Life’s resident Chicken Connoisseur aka Elijah Quashie can’t quite boast the same résumé as the two hosts, but his rise from camera touting Fried Chicken Journalist to national television presenter in less than two years has shown that mainstream broadcasters now firmly have their eyes peeled to digital uprising of new content starting in our streets. It’s no surprise that young black creators online are the ones who seem to be shifting content out of its more analogue age and democratising content creation. Stories from overlooked communities are now reaching a mass audience without having to go through the ‘gatekeepers’ and the logistical hoops that are present through mainstream channels. The effect is palpable as this shift is dictating the movements of entertainment and popularity across our TV screens. But in the same way that the mainstream has shifted toward our culture, should we resist our culture shifting too far in the opposite direction?

Big Narstie approaches his show with his usual indomitable charm —  “Brixton to Hollywood — for every piece of caviar, there will be a juicy beef patty”. A sermon that perfectly captures his status as an enigma, a person who is able to fully embody the resistant spirit of his hometown in London despite being seen by millions who only know it for its cautionary tales. The same can be said for Mo The Comedian whose witty, calming presence is the perfect foil for Narstie’s liveliness, with his professional nature seemingly a reason why the heads at Channel 4 opted not only to bring The Big Narstie Show back, but also green light a series from the rising comedian. It is this relationship between the two hosts, the similarities in their come up, and their closeness that makes up the heart of the show. The warped intimacy between the duo is oddly familiar, constantly poking fun at each other with the sort of careful consideration and scathing accuracy that only proper bredrins could. It gives the show an intense feeling of homeliness, like overhearing a conversation between friends on the bus. It’s also one of the strongest parts of the show, and the chemistry is something Channel 4 and the shows hosts have done well to cultivate. But their presence alone hasn’t stopped some aspects of the show from feeling slightly nauseating.

Despite successfully broadcasting parts of Black British youth culture to national platforms showcasing it’s richness, lets be clear The Big Narstie Show doesn’t get commissioned without the prospect of profit. And it will come as no surprise that Channel 4 are likely trying to find their own hit in the 16-to-24 age range, with US shows such as Atlanta and Snowfall (both on BBC2) showing the crossover potential of black creators. However, The Big Narstie Show, and subsequently this new slate of programming such as Peng Life  — are starting to seem a step behind in their execution.

Peng Life’s concept of ‘separating the street from the elite’ toy with the conflict of seeing young, black, working class men experience the decadence of higher classes. Playing up the clash between their own high-rise reality against a luxury lifestyle for laughs, it changes the fundamental nature of what made Quarshie’s Chicken Connoisseur character endearing in the first place. In his admiration of the chicken shop, a staple in many working class areas, his comedy had an undertone of sincerity which Channel 4’s Peng Life seems to completely miss. Pinning the success of their show on his character alone and ignoring the context of the original subject matter, even the cleverly chosen sponsors, KFC have essentially co-opted urban aesthetics, with their logo floating above city blocks like a spectre of the increasing commodification of inner-city culture.

Even The Big Narstie Show cannot escape some of those same pitfalls, as the heavy-handed edits sometimes make it feel like it has been turned into a viewing experience made consumable enough for a national palate that is unfamiliar with blackness in its most rugged form. The Big Narstie Show which the hosts boasted was ‘The Blackest Thing On TV’ in their initial promotional run, adopted some of the same tactics that Peng Life does to hook viewers in, by exploring a supposed black reality through a celebrity medium. And sure, seeing how Giggs and David Schwimmer interact with the grime MC as mediator makes for interesting TV, but it demands a voyeuristic interest in black culture, one that is easier to consume for mass viewership, providing those unaware of black culture a spot of cultural tourism without the necessity of leaving their homes.

But in trying to be seen, it only seems a matter of time before we ask, whom are we being seen by?

That hasn’t stopped either show from becoming modest hits though, and it has boosted the average share of black and minority ethnic viewers’ by three and the youth audience by two, according to Channel 4. However it does bring into question whether ‘the culture’ has to be sanitised in order for it to scale the mainstream heights it is attempting to reach. Many Black and Asian viewers will stick along for the ride, true, as representation in a climate that seems barren compared to our American compatriots will likely satisfy our hunger to be seen. But in trying to be seen, it only seems a matter of time before we ask, whom are we being seen by? While boosting Black and Asian viewerships, it should be remembered that they only make up less than 13% of the viewing public, with the Asian population making up 8%, and the Black British population only 3%. Inevitably, once these talents are snapped up by massive broadcasters and exposed to the country’s majority, the gaze of the mainstream forces underground talent to live above land, where lights are brighter and audiences less understanding of the practices, customs and language that bubble beneath ground. But why must our practices, our customs and our spaces on screen undergo a process of cultural cleansing before reaching the mainstream?

The fact is this type of representation is a something that would be incredibly difficult for its hosts to not be aware of. It’s something Narstie himself alludes to in interviews, when talking of the success of the show with Buzzfeed he stated, “It’s a blessing, but it’s so scary as well, because I don’t know what I’m doing that everyone likes it so much. It’s really scary sometimes.” His fears feel reflected in every sudden cut, as each edit reemphasises the power Channel 4 have over Narstie and Mo, tweaking and tuning each of their episodes to fit an audience that neither party has ever directly catered to.

One skit in particular dubbed ‘Grime and Prejudice’, with Amelia Dimoldenberg of Chicken Shop Date fame, and comedian Rachel Harris, had an unexpected eeriness to it despite only harmlessly slapping on some grime references atop a conflicting period drama setting. Sure, the contradiction sounds funny, and hearing Mo Gilligan quote Ghetto’s famous line from his clash with now actor Ashley Thomas aka Bashy (ask Carlos if you don’t know what I’m talking about) in Queens English would raise a chuckle out of its most ardent sceptics. But the longer the joke went on, the more unsettling the premise of it seemed. In each passing quip there seemed to be a condescending valorisation, that only put the two ideas in such close proximity in order to display the ridiculousness of having them anywhere close to each other. It’s a moment that felt like an exposition revealing just who the show was attempting to target, where even the most iconic aspects within ethnic subcultures were not allowed to exist loudly on screen unless rubber-stamped with the approval of traditional television. It felt demeaning to see the richness, the history and the importance of Grime with its accented address, morphed into an inaudible entity despite Narstie’s attempt at code switching.

Although part of the beauty of television is its ability to escape reality, or to subvert it through surrealism — like Random Acts of Flyness, or a satire  like Atlanta, here The Big Narstie Show did neither, working only to present a sterile experience of Black Britishness. Though that’s no fault of the hosts, as Lindo in particular is someone who has found success by living his truth, you can’t help but feel as if the camera uses him to squeeze out each instance of what it assumes is Blackness through a ‘traditionally’ British lens.

Despite these moments, the show still felt uniquely inspiring, authentic and most of all funny in other areas. Seeing young black men who actually look like a part of the culture being given the chance to showcase it for themselves is a necessary and welcomed improvement, instead of it being appropriated and whitewashed with quick-witted hosts looking for quicker cash. But to ignore the uneasiness of seeing parts of a movement that I grew up in, with inside jokes that only we knew, being sanitised and sold back to us in such alien ways, would be to ignore the grimier aspects that gave the culture its name.

A lot of these fears however could simply be the result of hyper-vigilance; an overbearing protectiveness that comes about when one finally seems to be a part of something that is truly ours and cannot be taken away – “Alexa, play F.U.B.U. by Solange”. But even if it is, is it really unjustified to want to protect our cultural products from the clutches of mainstream consumers? Amongst the backdrop of social regeneration across many Black and Asian communities in London, many of which come from South of the River, questions about Channel 4’s intentions with black talent will naturally arise. They not only have power but privilege over the type of talent they hire, including employing writers, editors and directors who have the ability to act as a leash for creativity as much as an outlet. Changing what is supposed to be a cultural exchange into a dictation of what one culture should be and what it should look like by another one, mirrors a lot of what is happening in areas such as Brixton or Peckham. As the respective areas of Narstie and Mo, places that were once rich in cultural inimitability are being forced to put a limit on their existence so as to not disturb the changing demographic that sweeps the area clean with their cash.

A question that should be asked, is whether it is possible to have genuine displays of Black and Asian culture on a platform like Channel 4? The internet has already allowed these creators to produce their own work unfettered and without the interference of executives. Channel 4’s programming history once boasted an embrace of BAME stories, such as Desmond’s — the first black sitcom to air in the UK, and in the past ten years they have empowered people from diverse backgrounds to broadcast their own voices. Working with many young directors of colour through Random Acts and exposing subculture to the mainstream with shows such as Dubplate Drama and Four To The Floor, it also provided TV debuts to artists such as Kojey Radical and Denzel Himself. However, behind the scenes they seem to be severely lagging behind.

A recent study published in The Guardian found that only 9% of all staff at Channel 4 identified as working class, a number that places them firmly at the bottom out of all UK broadcasters. Researcher Sam Friedman cited ‘subtle acts of elitism’ and ‘unconscious bias’ as problems among Channel 4 staff, issues that could easily trickle down into the DNA of shows such as Peng Life or The Big Narstie Show. It is problems such as these that likely keep many shows from realising their full potential with cultural confidence. It has far less of the political polish and culturally honed crafting that really allows an audience to connect with these shows.

Programs like Desmond’s, BBC’s The Real McCoy and Goodness Gracious Me were shows that current execs should do their due diligence on. Despite being screened almost 20 years ago, the incisive nature of these shows challenged the TV tropes of their day in their execution whilst still remaining completely relevant to its audience. They contained the answers to some of the most pertinent questions that are still being presented, and through that remain as relevant today as the day they were aired. But there can be no way for diversity in programming to influence sustained change, unless there is a change in the make up behind the camera. The progression and retention of BAME talent behind the camera has already been highlighted as a major issue according to its 360 Diversity Charter as recently as last year.

With the second season of The Big Narstie Show soon to be on the horizon, and Mo Gilligan’s own sketch comedy show being green lit by the broadcaster, Channel 4 have certainly set themselves up to be in a position to learn from the shortcomings of the first season. When the show returns to the airwaves they will be somewhat more attuned to what audiences crave. The success of The Big Narstie Show may be what has gotten it to its second season, but to create a stronghold with it’s target of young people, the incisiveness of its contributors in front and behind the camera will give it room to improve.