MEDIA FORUM: Can E4's content woo advertisers and viewers? - The launch campaign has been flawless. And E4 has some ambitious programming plans. But can the digital channel deliver? And will advertisers be interested? Alasdair Reid asks

In terms of what they used to call sheer razzmatazz, the launch of E4 on Thursday has to be the biggest media event since ... well, since the Spice Girls were persuaded to do their stuff for Channel 5. The Channel 4 marketing machine has been working full tilt and Ali G, the face of the launch evening, has been a public relations dream - he's been seen in all the right editorial slots, complete with his new 'Ghetto pimp' image (that's a white fur coat to you and me).

In terms of what they used to call sheer razzmatazz, the launch of E4 on Thursday has to be the biggest media event since ... well, since the Spice Girls were persuaded to do their stuff for Channel 5. The Channel 4 marketing machine has been working full tilt and Ali G, the face of the launch evening, has been a public relations dream - he's been seen in all the right editorial slots, complete with his new 'Ghetto pimp' image (that's a white fur coat to you and me).

But despite all of that, there's surely a feeling that something is missing.

It's nothing to do with the fact that this is yet another digital-age cable and satellite channel. At least two-thirds of the country can't watch or won't watch. No, that's not it - not entirely it. It's more to do with our belief in E4's potential to surprise us.

Those of us tuning in won't be doing so because we're curious to see what this strange beast looks like. We know what we'll find on E4. We'll find some of our favourite programmes, that's what.

We'll find the new series of Friends and ER, we'll find Graham Norton and, er, Eurotrash.

It's basically subscription-TV Channel 4 - and in the last few weeks, the biggest surprise that many of us have had about E4 is that we won't be asked to stump up even more cash for the privilege of watching it.

It has been added to basic cable and ONdigital packages and this week concluded a deal with Sky Digital. But Friends aside (and Friends isn't a bottomless pit of programming), what we have here is just another cable channel. It's somewhere between Sky One and Paramount, isn't it?

Wrong. It's a lot more than that. At least Dan Brooke, the deputy managing director of E4, would have you believe so. He states: 'Everyone points out that there are lots of channels. There may be a lot in terms of quantity but not in terms of quality. There aren't many that offer must-see, first-run programming. There are even less prepared to commission new programming of their own. We have that in abundance. We're the first terrestrial channel to take multi-channel seriously and we will be different to what's there because we will be fresher and more British.'

Brooke says that E4 intends to serve the parts of the core Channel 4 audience that have multi-channel television. It's for those of a youthful outlook who are into new things, but everyone is aware that those youthful minds have expectations of a product from the Channel 4 stable. Those expectations will be met, Brooke insists. The penalties for failing on that score are potentially massive. 'We're putting our money where our mouth is. New series with new talent coming out of this building will be doubled,' he adds.

Which will be awesome if it can be achieved. But this sort of statement has echoes of another (admittedly lower profile) cable and satellite channel launched not so long ago.

ITV2 was first touted as the network's version of BBC2 - a more intelligent environment in which experiments could be conducted without fear of ridicule and advertiser outrage. A nursery, a proving ground for new talent and ideas. It hasn't quite worked out that way. These days you're more likely to find a few repeats followed by (gasp) the David Letterman Show.

Then there's the strange case of Elisabeth Murdoch and her plan to turn Sky One into a showcase for brilliant, popular and original UK programming. The scheme wasn't a total washout (although high-profile shows such as The Strangerers were a huge disappointment), but Ms Murdoch has moved on and more than ever Sky One seems to be a vehicle for The Simpsons with a bit of Star Trek thrown in for good measure.

Can E4 live up to its promises? Nick Theakstone, the broadcast director of MediaVest, is prepared to believe so. He comments: 'Anything riding on the coat-tails of Channel 4 has got to have a chance and you have to be confident about E4, especially when you consider what they have already done with Film Four. The launch strategy has been tremendous and they have every opportunity to take it on from there, provided the distribution is right. There is so much choice out there that it's difficult to stand out from the crowd. But the marketing has been fantastic and the programming looks strong and the audience should be young and upmarket.'

But also rather small, surely? Theakstone believes it should meet some modest audience targets early on. Its share of total TV impacts should get up to around 0.5 per cent - which isn't bad - and total young adults should peak at around 1 per cent. That, allied to the fact that it will be a strong brand, will guarantee advertiser interest. And Theakstone argues that, although it might be costly, it is within Channel 4's capacities to make this work: 'Can they afford the costs involved in staying at the forefront of the broadcast market? Yes, they can. Do they need to find new platforms? Yes, they do. This is an investment for the future.'

So, are advertisers happy to come on board from day one? John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of Glaxo SmithKline, says it gets his vote: 'It all looks very encouraging but I suppose we can't be sure until we've had a chance to watch it in our own front rooms. It's aimed at a young audience, which is always welcome. And the promotions, which have focused on the first runs of established series, are smart - in multi-channel it's always hard to get people to go to your channel and I think the marketing and promotional activity will definitely stimulate trial. There's a general fund of goodwill where Channel 4 is concerned these days and they have been pricing it pretty sensibly. They're not asking for the earth, nor have they been making stupid claims. They're giving it every chance.'

John Horrocks, the managing partner, broadcast of Walker Media, is also positive - but he warns it won't be a piece of cake. He comments: 'Obviously, Channel 4 has been so successful over the last year or so and they will be able to leverage that to some extent. But like all new channels, it might take a while for revenue to follow ratings success. We will look at its share of the satellite audience and its performance against Sky One and also, to a lesser extent, Paramount.

'It has every chance to succeed because it has good programming and Sky One is struggling. Obviously, the bigger it grows, the better it will do in advertising terms. From our point of view, it could represent a good alternative to using Sky One. I have a feeling it will do well.'



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