Channel 4 and the red triangle: a case study in film curation and censorship on television

Justin Smith

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This article charts the history of an experiment, conducted during the autumn
and winter of 1986–7, in which Channel 4 trialled an on-screen visual warning
symbol to accompany screenings of a series of international art-house films. The
so-called ‘red triangle’ experiment, though short-lived, will be considered as a
case study for exploring a number of related themes. Firstly, it demonstrates
Channel 4’s commitment during the 1980s to fulfilling its remit to experiment
and innovate in programme form and content, in respect of its acquired
feature film provision. Channel 4’s acquisitions significantly enlarged the range
of international classic and art-house cinema broadcast on British television.
Secondly, it reflects contemporary tensions between the new broadcaster, its
regulator the IBA, campaigners for stricter censorship of television and policymakers.
The mid-1980s was a period when progressive developments in UK
film and television culture (from the rise of home video to the advent of
Channel 4 itself) polarised opinions about freedom and regulation, which were
greatly exacerbated by the press. Thirdly, it aims to shed light on the paradox
that, while over thirty years of audience research has consistently revealed the
desire on the part of television viewers for an on-screen ratings system, the UK
is not among some forty countries that currently employ such devices on any
systematic basis. In this way the history of a specific advisory experiment may
be seen to have a bearing on current policy trends.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)481-498
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 18 Oct 2014


  • Channel 4
  • warning symbol
  • special discretion required
  • IBA
  • RCUK
  • AHRC


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