C4 joins fight for digital TV audience

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The Independent Online
CHANNEL 4 yesterday launched FilmFour, the first digital television channel with obvious appeal to a fashionable, up-market, intellectual audience. It will be on air from 1 November, at pounds 5.99 a month on all three digital platforms - satellite, terrestrial and cable.

Michael Jackson, the chief executive of Channel 4, said that FilmFour would show 500 quality films a year, and added that the first new channel in the station's 16-year history would be about "buying and presenting the best films and showing them uncut. We care for and cherish film," he said.

The accompanying video was suitably arthouse and intellectually elitist - a long, grainy shot of a windswept beach and a distant man, panning down to a chocolate eclair. Man confronts eclair, eats it, and finds it to be booby-trapped, dragging him out to sea. It raised a laugh, and provoked the comment that "Channel 4 has always produced the best trails". But the major question for Mr Jackson is how many trendy people will appreciate arty eclair-based humour enough to sign up. He said he hoped to reach 150,000 subscribers in the first year, the number required to allow the project to break even over three to four years, after an initial investment of pounds 30m.

The channel will broad- cast 12 hours a day from 6pm until 6am, allowing six or seven full-length feature films a night.

On launch night, it will kick off with a four-minute puppet version of Titanic, and the evening's schedule includes The Usual Suspects, starring Kevin Spacey, and Peter Greenaway's The Pillow Book, with Ewan McGregor. It will be accompanied by a simultaneous broadcast on Channel 4, and will also be available to five million subscribers to analogue satellite and cable services.

Other films in the line-up include Channel 4 productions such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Madness of King George.

Most films, though, will be recent classics made by other producers, including 2001 A Space Odyssey, Neil Jordan's Angel, Gregory's Girl, My Own Private Idaho and Sex Lies and Videotape. In the number of movies on offer, the Channel 4 offering is small beer in comparison with the premium movie channels being offered by Sky.

It also has the disadvantage, as with the current analogue channels, of showing most of the movies while people are asleep.

But FilmFour has the distinction of being, perhaps, the most prestigious of all the dozens of new digital channels being devised by the main players in the digital market.

Sky, which wants to upgrade its brand image, was keen to be associated with FilmFour and, according to David Brook, Channel 4's director of strategy, wanted to take ownership of a large chunk of the project. "We resisted that," he said.

FilmFour is merely the first step in Michael Jackson's broader strategy to develop a wider range of niche channels. A Channel 4 comedy channel might soon follow, as well as one for horse racing.

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