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Channel Four Television and British Film Culture: an assessment of the broadcaster’s film policy and programming, and its impact on British film culture.

In 2007 Channel Four’s Twenty-fifth birthday was marked by a number of reappraisals of its broadcasting legacy. Yet its innovation in film sponsorship and programming scarcely received mention. At a time when Channel Four’s future as a public service broadcaster is again in the media spotlight, this project directs attention specifically to its unique contribution to film culture in Britain. This new research also adopts an original historical approach to the relations between television and film.

In the wake of the 1977 Annan Report, Channel Four’s charter made the promotion of film part of its working remit. Film on Four broke new ground in directly funding feature film production for television broadcast and selective cinema release. But Channel Four’s coverage of film culture (from magazine programmes to avant-garde seasons, from cutting-edge documentary to experimental animation) went further still in realising its ambition to promote diversity and minority interests. It also established a distribution arm (Film Four International). From 1998 to 2006, it pioneered a subscription film service on its digital network (FilmFour) – another innovative enterprise in the context of a rapidly changing global television marketplace.

This four-year Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project assesses Channel Four’s impact on British film culture since 1982. It will consist of two elements. The substantive part of the study, at the University of Portsmouth, will comprise two full-time PhDs, a major conference and a project website. Channel Four has agreed to assist the project in facilitating interviews with current and former commissioning editors for Film. The conference (in 2012) will invite academics, TV and film industry personnel and policy-makers, to debate the responsibilities and approaches of public service broadcasting to film culture in Britain, from the advent of Channel Four to emerging internet film download environments. The conference proceedings will be published on a University of Portsmouth website will which also showcase the project’s work to a wider public. The final project outcome (in year four) will be a monograph by the Principal Investigator, Dr Justin Smith.

The second, subsidiary, element of this project, sub-contracted to the Research Executive at the British Universities Film and Video Council, will be to produce a database of Channel Four’s weekly Press Information Packs (1982-2004) under an agreement with Channel Four. Working with the PhD students, the Research Executive will develop methods of interrogating this data primarily in order to gather information about film programming and broadcast film reviews. But, with agreed input from Channel Four, they will also reflect on the methodology used and demonstrate the wider potential of this digital resource for future media researchers. The database and full research context will be published (in year three) and maintained on the BUFVC’s website for the benefit of the UK HE community after the main project is completed. The project’s findings, via book, web and journal publications, will reach an audience across and beyond academia. The conference will provide a forum for opinion-formers and policy-makers to debate the current and future roles of public service broadcasters in British film culture.

A third PhD, funded by a CCCR bursary, will assess the policy and output of BBC Films over the same period in an independent study; the findings of this research will be important to the overall project’s mapping of British film culture over the last thirty years.

Justin Smith 04/10/10