Media: Analysis: The West End comes to C4

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The Independent Culture
THE LAUNCH of Channel 4's new film channel next Sunday is being accompanied by what the channel's chief executive, Michael Jackson, describes as a "Freedom to See" campaign.

The channel is meeting the Independent Television Commission to lobby for more liberal regulations covering films broadcast on satellite and cable television channels.

At present, pay television channels are allowed to show only versions of films that have been approved for video distribution by the British Board of Film Classification.

For the great majority of subscription film channels, this makes very little difference. Hollywood blockbusters, despite their love of cartoon violence, leave their studios carefully edited so that they can maximise their audience and not overstep the limits that an R18 rating demands.

"The Film Four channel is unique because it is what is called in the trade a `second pay window'," says Jackson. It means we can pick and choose the films we buy; we don't have to buy packages of films from studios. We show what we want to show, not what the studios want us to buy."

It also means that Film Four will have considerably more challenging fare than most of its rivals. Film Four plans to show films such as the hard-hitting Harvey Keitel vehicle, Bad Lieutenant. In its first months it also plans screenings of films such as Kissed, in which a female mortuary attendant gets unhealthily close to her dead charges, and Man Bites Dog, a black comedy in which a documentary film crew encourages a serial killer.

"Pay television is different to broadcast television in that viewers have to make a positive choice about what they watch," says Jackson. "We already know from Channel 4 that when you explain the context of a film in detail you get far fewer complaints, because people have to choose to watch it and far fewer people who are likely to be offended wander into things."

Film Four's campaign to change the current ITC regulations has been boosted by a report commissioned by the ITC itself, which backs up Jackson's assertion that subscription viewers are more tolerant than the general viewer. First the ITC looked at the proportion of complaints it received from satellite and cable viewers. In 1997, out of 2,894 complaints only 142 were about cable or satellite programmes.

Then a research company, Millward Brown, asked 3,000 viewers about their attitudes to sex, violence and bad language on television. In every case viewers of satellite and cable television were found to be more liberal. Only a minority of cable and satellite viewers are shocked by what they see on television, and they were twice as likely as terrestrial-only viewers to agree that cable and satellite should be able to show more sex and nudity.

"We are not seeking an argument," says Jackson. "We want to go with the flow of society. And people are more tolerant and they are more diverse. We want to work with the ITC over time to explore how people tolerate films."

The other aspect of "Freedom to See" is much easier for the new channel to achieve. Because it is buying unique films, the channel can put on movies that have had little or no distribution in cinemas: "Dance Hall is the most successful Jamaican film ever made, but it has had no UK distribution," says Jackson. "The only chance to see it will be on Film Four."

Jackson also believes his new channel will bring films to people who live far away from the main arts cinemas: "It's not just about film distribution; it is about films that get shown in just one cinema in London. Living in the capital, it is easy to forget that the West End film-going experience is very different to that of the rest of the country."

Many of the channel's American independent films are already available to hire on video. In its first month,Film Four will show American films such as: Barton Fink, The Shawshank Redemption and The Usual Suspects. So its value will come when it shows more obscure films like New Zealand's Romper Stomper, Peter Blatty's The Ninth Configuration as well as art house favourites such as Hal Hartley's Trust and Peter Greenaway's Pillow Book.