As Channel 4 invests in FourDocs, an open access broadband channel, has the time finally arrived for broadcasters to embrace the democratising possibilities of broadband technology, asks Peter Keighron.
As Channel 4 invests in FourDocs, an open access broadband channel, has the time finally arrived for broadcasters to embrace the democratising possibilities of broadband technology, asks Peter Keighron.

Pointy-headed new media types and Nathan Barley-ites have been thinking long and hard about how to gain fame and fortune, particularly fortune, from broadband television. But public service broadcasters have also been pondering the broadband opportunity.

In 2003, when he was director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke flagged up the potential of broadband to allow free access to BBC archives. Two key projects - the Creative Archive, which will allow users to download programmes and/or clips, and the interactive media player, which will allow users to catch up on a selection of the past week's programming - have undergone technical trials and will soon test consumer demand. However, Channel 4 will be first to take to the screen with a truly broadband channel when it launches FourDocs in July.

C4 has had a commercial broadband service for a few years - for£4.95 a month subscribers can download a selection of programming. Now the channel is investing real money -£500,000 over the next year - to create a channel that actually shows new films through broadband.

It will be free to the user and free to access too. Anyone can submit a four-minute documentary and, as long as it passes legal and technical requirements, it'll go up on the FourDocs site.

The change of focus towards a public service use of broadband is largely down to the arrival of Andy Duncan as C4 chief executive.

"With 4Interactive we were purely a commercial operation," says C4 managing director of new media Andy Taylor. "The position has changed now to be a dual role. How you make money is as important as ever, but the second aspect is how can we be innovative and fulfil a public service remit?" FourDocs won't be short of material to show. Broadband is already being heavily used by film-makers for non-commercial and often political reasons through websites and "vlogging" (the video equivalent of blogging).

"FourDocs will be drawing on a lot of the influences to do with the way political activism works on the web," says Anthony Lilley, managing director of Magic Lantern, the company that will be designing the new channel. Lilley points to examples like the site which invited people to make 30-second pro or con ads on George W Bush before the last US election.

"There was some incredible stuff," he says, "some made by people with their camcorders, some of it by professionals, some by children. Harnessing these ideas is at the heart of FourDocs."

Documentary film-maker Patrick Uden, who will be FourDocs' executive editor, believes the channel will not be an alternative to the traditional documentary form but an extension of that tradition.

"It's in the true tradition of documen-tary history," he says. "Documentary started out trying to tell the stories of ordinary people's lives. It blossomed out into the mass observation movement in the 1930s then continued through the Humphrey Jennings films of the second world war, Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson and the Free Cinema movement, and the "fly on the wall" of Paul Watson in the 1970s. Each of these movements is trying to get closer to reality."

The application of broadband to expand public service broadcasting also fits well into C4's own traditions. When the channel began, it opened its doors to new production companies, film-makers and community-based media workshops. But with the growing commercial demands on the channel the doors began to close. FourDocs could go some way towards enticing a new generation and new type of "producers" to the channel.

For the BBC, the interest in broadband is not in bringing new programming into being but in the wider distribution of its current and past programming.

The challenge for the BBC, and indeed for all broadcasters, in using broadband is political and legal, rather than technological.

"Rights is a massive issue around distribution and content," says executive producer Jason DaPonte. "It's the biggest concern both from the perspective of acquiring the rights and making sure we protect the rights of the various rights-holders out there for every piece of media we have."

The main political problem for the BBC lies in using licence fees to provide a news service which is by no means available to all. Broadband is growing fast and there could well be some 10 million broadband homes by the end of 2006. But that still poses a problem for the BBC, says Angel Gambino, controller of business development and emerging platforms.

"If you're going to offer rich media then you need to find a way to block off the international traffic, while enabling access for the growing domestic markets. Technically it's not that difficult but it would shift the broadcaster into a direct to consumer model."

For broadband enthusiasts like David Docherty, Yoomedia's chief executive, broadband isn't a ghetto but a major and necessary expansion of public service broadcasting. "What the web does is gives you a multiple, fragmented but properly represented sense of communities or 'tribes'," he says. "I think broadcasters with public funding, like the BBC or C4, should be connecting to those tribes, and the way to do that is through supporting their broadband sites.

"If you look at the BBC's latest pronouncements, particularly around the concept of localism, I think it's beginning to get there," he adds, "and I think that Andy Duncan has definitely got there. The commercial broadcasters will take their own sweet time as ever."

And their time will come. Neither ITV nor Five have any plans for broadband developments at the moment but, like all broadcasters, terrestrial and digital, that will surely have to change.

As the distinction between TVs and PCs begins to blur and as it becomes easier to record and transfer programmes via broadband, broadcasters will have to come to terms with the fact that broadband is being used as a distribution medium for their programmes and they'll have to decide what they want to do about that. In some ways it mirrors the dilemmas faced by record companies in coming to terms with the distribution of music through the internet.

"The music industry were completely behind the times on this stuff," says Docherty, "and then they realised they had to get into the legal side of distribution otherwise the illegal peer-to-peer distribution would kill them. With things like [Apple's] iTunes there's an iconic way of doing that and I think you're going to get a similar thing happening in the audiovisual space."

So watch that space, or download it and watch it later.