Torin Douglas: The small screen can entertain the big issues

Hidden among the satellite shopping channels is a pioneering venture launched by the Media Trust. The Community Channel is a novel concept, says Torin Douglas

Of the dozens of digital TV channels striving to win viewers in the teeth of cut-throat competition, there is one that brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “pay TV”. In fact, it really belongs in a slightly different category, one that we might call “give TV”.

The Community Channel can be found on channel 655 on the Sky electronic programme guide, just below Simply Shop and the GOD Channel, and just above the Dating Channel.

Technically, it’s a shopping channel – at least, under the ITC’s regulations it is. In fact, it’s a charity channel, which gives 120 good causes – from Action Against Hunger to the YMCA – the chance to talk to millions of viewers about their work. In the process, the Community Channel helps them make better use of an otherwise under-utilised resource – the high-quality video material that film-makers, ad agencies and others produce for charities on a pro bono basis.

The Community Channel launched last autumn as an offshoot of the Media Trust, an organisation which brings charities and the media together. It received start-up grants from the Government and the National Lottery, and development money from SkyDigital, ONdigital and cable companies. The biggest contribution has been Sky’s offer of free transponder capacity for three years, and it will be available on ITV Digital as well.

For the past six months, the Community Channel has been, in effect, piloting its service, and as a viewing experience it has left something to be desired. Despite the sterling efforts of the staff, the output has felt pretty pedestrian.

When the channel launched, in a hurry and short of money, it commissioned the production company Mentorn to put together 78 hours of charity video material. But Mentorn did so on one-hour video tapes that had to be played in their entirety, allowing no chance to mix and match material from different tapes.

Next month, the channel will relaunch with a new on-screen look and a much greater ability to tailor its material to the needs of the moment, thanks to the wonders of digital editing and production, played out from a desktop computer. The new system will actually reduce the channel’s running costs, as will in-house editing suites, which have been passed on by generous broadcasters and production companies.

There’ll be endorsements from over 20 celebrities, including Chris Tarrant and Martin Clunes, and a 60-part series – funded by the Government’s Active Community Unit – on how people can get involved in the voluntary sector.

The Community Channel’s airtime has increased from three hours a day to ten, and there is now a linked website, www.communitychannel.org, which carries the TV channel’s schedules, as well as details of its 120 charities, links to their own websites and streaming video, so that the charities’ visual material can be accessed online as well as via digital TV.

“Unlike commercial companies that spend millions of pounds making their websites ‘sticky’, the Community Channel is happy to send visitors to charities’ own sites,” says Gerard Melling, the channel’s managing director.

Now he hopes that charities will return the favour, linking their sites back to the Community Channel’s and promoting the channel itself in other ways. Its big problem – like that of every digital channel, from Sky One and E4 to BBC Choice and Artsworld – is grabbing attention amid the plethora of competing offerings.

Potentially, the Community Channel has a huge advantage, for every charity it links up with has a database of volunteers, donors and other interested parties, as well as a sheaf of publicity material, including leaflets, magazines, posters, press releases and, of course, a website. What the Community Channel needs is for the charities to throw their own marketing weight behind it, simply by referring to it in all their literature.

“Charities have got seriously involved in the Web, and we must persuade them that they need to take digital TV equally seriously,” says Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the Media Trust. “Here is a platform which is available in 5 million Sky homes, and a further million through ITV Digital, where we’ll be launching in the summer. That is a huge opportunity for charities to get their films into people’s living rooms, and not all of them have realised the potential of linking it to their other publicity material.”

When they do so, it has immediate results. The Galapagos Conservation Trust put the channel’s schedules on its website during a recent oil spillage, and reported a big increase in calls. Such information is totally anecdotal, but later this month the channel is centralising its telephone response system, so it – rather than the individual charities – knows how many people call, and it can start analysing the data properly.

There is already a list of charities waiting to climb on board, including Greenpeace and the RNIB. For the time being, until it switches to its new format, the Channel has restricted itself to 120. Soon there will be no limit, provided the charity has suitable video material.

Or rather there will be a different sort of limit. For the Community Channel faces a very big task – devising a rate card, for spot advertising and appearances on the channel – that won’t squeeze out small charities but will ensure it gets a proper contribution from the larg

e ones. Even a charity channel has to be businesslike.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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