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Pop CultureOctober 19, 2023

Remember when C4 rocked onto NZ screens?


Twenty years ago this month a new channel full of music videos and edgy youth-oriented programming arrived on New Zealand screens. We look back on the glory days of C4.

Being at the wrong end of a Top 100 countdown shouldn’t be more significant than taking the top spot, but for The D4 it left them with a legacy even Nirvana couldn’t boast. Twenty years ago, at 8pm on 3 October 2003, the Auckland band’s video for ‘Exit to the City’ marked the arrival of a brand new free-to-air music TV channel called C4. 

The video, quite clearly made on a shoestring budget, features the four-piece performing to a single camera while crammed in the back of a van as it careens around the suburban streets of Auckland. It’s an apt metaphor for the station it launched – run on the smell of an oily rag by a ragtag bunch of passionate music nerds, squished into a small space and disrupting the quiet of the sensible landscape it moved in. 

At the time C4 made its grand entrance, Sky’s Juice music channel had dominated the jukebox TV space for nine years. But if you weren’t a paid subscriber to the Sky network there was very little music content on offer following the axing of TVNZ shows like Space, RTR countdown, M2 and Squeeze.

That meant there was an audience ready and waiting from the moment Mediaworks announced the launch of C4. It was a gimme for the incoming collection of plucky young producers and presenters led by ex-Channel Z programme director, Andrew Szusterman. 

The C4 production team operated out of a small, single room building in the carpark of TV3. A stone’s throw away, in the main building, the all-white studio took up a tiny corner of real estate for the business end of live broadcasts. In that studio a rolling cast of presenters would talk to the audience through a solitary wall-mounted camera. Zoom, pan and tilt functions, along with vision switching and graphics, were operated by a  technical director who sat in the adjacent control room.

New Zealand music was championed across the channel, with local clips peppered throughout the playlist and dedicated show Homegrown becoming the preferred platform for local video premieres. Other specialist shows brought us the best of hip hop, alternative, retro, top 40, electronic, rock and metal. In addition, C4 aired popular MTV series like Pimp My Ride, Jackass, Laguna Beach and Cribs. Edgy animated shows were also part of the schedule and included South Park, King of the Hill, American Dad and Family Guy, among others. 

These international shows were a great bonus, but the heart and soul of C4 was its music programming and presenters. The roster of talent was impressive at the time, and even more so in retrospect. Jaquie Brown and Clarke Gayford had both done some time in TV and radio, but becoming the lead hosts and faces of C4 cemented them in our collective consciousness. The playful rapport between the pair was infectious and set the tone for the rest of the station. 

C4’s class of 2006

Highly regarded radio hosts Nick Dwyer, Camilla Martin, Jono Pryor, James Coleman, Teuila Blakely and DJ Sir-Vere rounded out the foundation presenting team on launch. In the years that followed C4 nurtured more youth hosting talent in Joel Defries, Jane Yee, Phil Bostwick, Helena McAlpine, Shavaughn Ruakere, Dai Henwood, Jermaine Leef, Shannon Ryan, Drew Ne’emia and Laila Dookia. 

C4 burst to life at a time when we didn’t blink at paying $30 a pop for a CD that could be ruined by a single scratch from the very case that was supposed to protect it. Its arrival was a gift for record companies, providing a powerful avenue to promote their respective rosters. Getting artists featured on C4 quickly became a top priority as labels competed for airtime, interview slots and giveaway opportunities. 

C4 hosts Teuila Blakely, Jane Yee, Laila Dookia and Camilla Martin (Photo: Supplied)

Outside of the studio, C4 had a stronghold on music culture. At any given festival you’d find a throng of kids in Dickies and Chuck Taylors swarming the C4 tent to meet their favourite hosts, buy trucker caps and get their hands on free bumper stickers. Getting home from school and plonking in front of Select Live, tuning in to Special Features for a big video premiere on a Friday night or warding off the Sunday scaries with U Choose 40 were universal experiences for a whole generation of rangatahi who didn’t know how good they had it.

Within a few years of C4’s launch, that same generation became truly spoilt for choice as MTV NZ and Alt TV joined Juice and C4 in the chat. Suddenly we were swimming in music TV at a time when we relied heavily on curated content for new music discovery. It would be a good few years before YouTube and Spotify flipped the global music landscape on its head by offering us whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted it. In the meantime we were quite happy to let programmers make those decisions for us. 

Dai Henwood and DJ Sir-Vere (Photo: Supplied)

Eventually ondemand streaming landed, and so began the erosion of radio and music TV as we knew it. In 2008 C4 rapidly became a watered down version of itself with a cull of music shows and presenters in favour of upping the international series roster in a move to become a more general youth entertainment platform. In 2011 Mediaworks ousted C4 from its premium channel position, launching FOUR in its place. 

C4 sort of lived on between Freeview and Sky, but the shows were gone, the presenters were gone, and – with a lifeless rotate of back to back music videos – it became a stale whiff of what it once was. The once beloved and vibrant music station was now a dusty old jukebox being shunted around channel spots, before limping from our screens completely at 1am on June 26, 2014. The last video that aired on C4 was The D4’s ‘Exit to the City’. 

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