If you think multi-channel television isn't for you, try the Community Channel. Despite its worthy title, the channel shows some good programmes, and deserves wider recognitionby / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Are you the sort of person who thinks that there is too much television, that more channels means less quality, and that listening to radio is generally preferable? Do you spend your time reading, pursuing a hobby or ferrying children around and regard watching television as a last resort? If any of this rings a bell, you may be a “digital rejector,” someone who can’t see the point of multi-channel television and chooses only to watch the main terrestrial channels, if at all. You’re quite an interesting section of the television-viewing public, because, like it or not, you are going to get multi-channel television: by 2012 the entire country will be switched over to digital, and broadcasters and their consultants are interested in how you will respond.
If you are a digital rejector—or even resister—you might be the sort of person who likes programmes that tell you about the world outside Britain, and not always through the experience of war and suffering. You might like programmes about the unreported lives of people in this country. And you might like programmes which cast a more positive light on the world in which we live, rather than those which seem to be about a population that is emotionally dysfunctional, rude, frequently drunk and sex-obsessed. If this has any resonance with you, then stop rejecting and explore the digital world—there are things out there for you.
On such an exploration earlier this year, I came across the Community Channel. Shamefully, despite working in television, I don’t think I had watched it before then—though subsequently I have found that very few people who work in television have watched it; even fewer politicians and opinion-formers have. (Not that this prevents some from having a—generally unflattering—opinion on the subject.) More than 70 per cent of the population are not even aware the Community Channel exists. For many people, the name itself must be a turn-off, with its smack of do-gooding. Indeed, research by the Community Channel shows that its viewers consider it respectable and worthy (bad) ahead of involving, intelligent and modern (good). These responses reflect one of the many dilemmas for the channel—in its own words, it is “dedicated to raising awareness and inspiring its audiences into action on issues and causes that matter to them.” But for most of us, watching television is a passive entertainment activity: we don’t seek out television programmes as members of an interest group.
The Community Channel receives its major financial support from the cabinet office and the minister responsible—Ed Miliband—is currently reviewing its future. Anyone who cares about maintaining diversity on British television must hope that he (or his successor) gives the channel a ringing endorsement. On the night I came across it, I saw an absorbing programme about fighting Aids in Africa (which would probably have been just an item on Newsnight if it had been on one of the main channels), a revealing though rough-around-the-edges film about the lives of young asylum-seekers and refugees living on a Scottish housing estate, and (to be balanced) a rather indifferent film about volunteers going to the South American jungle. Like anyone else, I don’t want to watch these sorts of programmes all the time—but I do want to know they are there and to be able to find them. Some of the Community Channel’s programmes (most of which are documentaries) could be better made, and some do feel old-fashioned in style, but they are strong on content. With a small amount of extra money, programmes that need it could be improved—and the evidence of the “digital rejectors” suggests that there would be a market for them.
Letting this market know that it exists is a major problem for the Community Channel—it is not listed in the Radio Times, and although it is on Sky (539) and Virgin (233), it is only on Freeview in the morning. Given that a lot of its potential audience will come from Freeview, and that people tend not to watch television in the morning, this is a major handicap. If you wanted to boost the Community Channel, you could give it the Freeview space currently occupied by the BBC Parliament channel (which is listed in the Radio Times).
Despite the handicap of not being shown on the most important digital platform, the Community Channel is watched by almost 2m people each month, which is small by terrestrial standards but respectable by multi-channel standards—indeed better than some commercial digital channels. It is probably watched by as many people as, say, the much more expensive BBC4—it’s just not watched as often.
The most important thing about the Community Channel is that it is different from other channels—it shows programmes which others won’t but for which there is a demand. At the moment the channel receives a lot of in-kind support from all the main broadcasters—all of whom are represented on the board of its owner, the Media Trust. If the Community Channel ever looked like it was becoming a threat, they would not support it. Which is another reason why the government should: the BBC and Channel 4 et al are not so good that they don’t need a bit of competition.