Why broadcasters face an uphill struggle to reinvent themselves

With one exception, UK Gold, the world of pay-TV in Britain has been dominated by a single brand, Sky.

But from next month, just as the switch to digital starts to gather momentum, that will change. Another powerful name, backed by a substantial terrestrial broadcaster, will launch into pay-TV, aiming to tap into a market sector rather different from the those served until now by Sky.

And no, I don’t mean ONdigital. Sunday November 1 sees the launch of Channel 4’s new pay film channel, FilmFour, available not just through ONdigital and Sky Digital but on analogue satellite as well and, for one night only, on terrestrial TV.

C4 will simulcast the first evening’s schedule, which includes What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (starring two heart-throbs, Johnny Depp and Leonardo di Caprio), The Usual Suspects (“one of the decade’s key films”) and two movies starring Ewan McGregor, one of the decade’s key stars: a new short, Dessert, and Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (“sumptuous”, “sensual”, “absorbing”, “labyrinthine” and “eye-popping” according to FilmFour’s publicity notes).

The only thing that seems to be missing is Trainspotting itself: you’ll have to wait until November 9 for that. These aren’t exactly mainstream Sky movies. Indeed, C4 has long been wary of letting Sky have the rights to C4-backed films, and now we can see why. It’s assembled an impressive line-up of UK and US independent titles, 86 in the first month alone, with an obvious appeal to the kind of young, affluent twenty- and thirtysomethings who live in Time Out territory and are, one suspects, under-represented among current pay-TV subscribers.

FilmFour promises to be a niche service with a substantial upmarket audience. Its presence on both digital platforms is likely to do neither ONdigital nor Sky any harm, and may even make satellite dishes hip.

The advance publicity for the channel, including a promotional video, suggests that C4 has a clear idea of what segment of the market it is aimed at, and how to appeal to it.

Compare ITV’s exercise in rebranding, with its new logo and self-description as “Television from the heart”. ITV has a tougher task: its target is much more diffuse because it’s a truly mass appeal channel, which needs to offer something for everyone, at least part of the time. At the recent presentation to advertisers to unveil the new look, commercial director John Hardie made a convincing argument for the approach he’s taken. He also promised that the emphasis would remain on the promotion of particular programmes, and that “corporate” advertising would be left to the BBC. Since he’s a product of the Procter & Gamble school of marketing we should expect nothing less – although one or two of the portmanteau trailers running on the channel seem to come perilously close to corporate ads.

The real test of Hardie’s approach may come next year when the channel attempts to integrate its own new identity into the long-established identities of the individual ITV companies (everywhere, interestingly, except Scotland and Northern Ireland). Part of ITV’s difficulty in positioning itself in an increasingly crowded market is that not only is its audience diffuse – so is the product itself and the product’s suppliers. The regional companies’ identities are, in some areas, stronger even than ITV’s. If Hardie can bring off a seamless integration of the two without bloodshed he’ll deserve every penny ITV are paying him.

At the same presentation, ITV’s chief executive, Richard Eyre, appealed to advertisers for help in the campaign to move News at Ten. He wants the chairmen of leading companies to write to the Independent Television Commission to argue the case for a more commercial ITV peaktime schedule.

It was, said Eyre, perfectly legitimate for the network to seek its customers’ support when politicians from Tony Blair down were weighing in on the other side.

And that was before the culture secretary Chris Smith wrote to Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport committee, saying he believed it might be illegal for ITV to move News at Ten.

Interestingly, C4 too might face a regulatory challenge to its new film channel. Although FilmFour is likely to be welcomed by the commercial broadcasters backing both main digital platforms because of the additional subscribers it will attract, it could be at the edge of what the European Union considers acceptable behaviour.

Rumour has it that the competition directorate in Brussels is considering a scheme which would prevent any public service broadcaster partly financed by advertising (like C4) from doing anything which competes directly with purely commercial broadcasters. Not only would that presumably outlaw FilmFour, it would also stop C4 itself from broadcasting Brookside, Countdown and ER (all programmes which a purely commercial broad- caster might transmit).

It’s a reminder of the fragility of the commercial freedom enjoyed by Britain’s terrestrial commercial broadcasters, notwithstanding ten years of supposed “deregulation”.v

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