Media: Cult viewing worth paying for

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The Independent Culture
in the industry they are called killer applications. Media offerings so good the public just can't refuse them. For pay television so far the killer applications have been Premier League football and first-run movies.

Until now those first-run movies have not tended to be the kind that look like killer applications to the reviewers and readers of The Independent. Instead the Hollywood action blockbuster dominates the pay movie channels just as much as it dominates the multiplexes.

Pay television, when first launched here in the late Eighties, was supposed to let a thousand flowers bloom. Opera channels were promised. Ballet by the yard would go hand-in-hand with Hollywood beamed into your home.

But, with the exception of small cable channels like Performance, it is difficult to escape the perception that more television channels just mean more of the same.

The curse of digital, especially the paid-for parts, is that so much of it is already available on cable or satellite and a lot of that has already been on terrestrial television.

But out of this mulch comes a project that at last looks like exciting the chattering classes about paying for a television channel.

Channel 4 announced last week that it will launch Film Four in November, its independent and international film channel. Film Four will offer something different: independent films from around the world that the channel describes as "cult, controversial, uncensored and uncut". It will screen several films a night and broadcast for 12 hours a day. Crucially it will be available as part of ONdigital's terrestrial package, as part of Sky's satellite digital package and on analogue cable and analogue satellite packages. It will cost a few pounds a month on top of each operator's basic package - the final price is yet to be confirmed.

Its appeal lies in that it is offering a new distribution system for art house films that in recent years has disappeared from many cities and towns. If you live outside London, the frustration of reading repeated reviews of films that never make it to your local can be replaced with a satellite dish or a set-top box.

And as befits Channel 4's status as a public service broadcaster, Film Four can also be seen as being in the national interest.

There is no doubt that as well as annoying Daily Mail readers, one of the great benefits of Channel 4 has been the boost it has given to the British independent film industry.

The production of films in Britain slipped from a high of 150 films made in the UK in the mid-Fifties to the all-time low of 24 produced in 1981.

Channel 4 launched in 1982 and has since financed or part-financed 262 films. Without Channel 4 there would have been no My Beautiful Laundrette, no Mike Leigh films such as Naked or Secrets and Lies and none of Ken Loach's radical, difficult films such as Raining Stones.

Many argue that Channel 4 should take a lot of credit for the fact that in 1996, the last year for which there are complete figures, there were 128 pictures made in the UK.

Now, with Film Four, the channel has a solution to the problem thrown up by the success it has helped to create. In 1995 over 50 per cent of British films failed to make it to a cinema screen. Last year it was worse.

If the market for independent and foreign films is not big enough to support art house cinemas, then a real benefit of digital technology could be its use as a new distribution system. The downside is that it will not be possible to pick off just Film Four and pay for it separately. Nevertheless, it sounds at last like a killer application that will do a bit more than just make movie stars, football players and Australian media moguls richer.