C4 plans digital net

E4 would be Blighty broadcaster's 3rd web

LONDON — Channel 4 chief exec Michael Jackson has outlined plans for a third company-owned network, the digital and interactive web E4.

Announcement was made last week while commenting on sturdy year-end figures for 1999.

C4 saw annual revenues climb 9% to £642 million ($963 million), while its share of viewing — despite further growth in multichannel platforms — remained constant at 10%.

“We’re the only broadcaster that did not experience a year-on-year fall in audience share,” chairman Vanni Treves said.

E4, a digital companion to arthouse web FilmFour, has been touted in vague terms since last fall, but Jackson put some flesh on the bones, estimating a $150 million investment in the project.

Interactive content

Jackson said the entertainment-driven web would launch late in the year and would include some U.S. imports, but would primarily be a firstrun showcase for original product, some of which, including gameshows, will feature interactivity.

Jackson hoped that, from startup, E4 would be available to all of Britain’s digital homes as a basic-tier channel, but he admitted that a carriage deal with leading digital provider BSkyB might require the sale of a stake to the News Corp.-backed satcaster.

He added that an interactive horseracing channel, allowing for bets to be placed online, is also skedded for a late 2000 launch.

Despite the Labor government’s declared intent to privatize C4 — which is commercially supported but publicly owned — Jackson told Daily Variety he was “confident” that the company would not face a real privatization threat at least until after the next election, in 2001 or early 2002.

The topper stressed the company’s public service commitment — as evidenced in recent BAFTA awards for sports, docu and arts shows, in C4’s sourcing from 412 distinct production companies during 1999 and in its growing commitment to U.K. film, from its FilmFour Lab for experimental pics to its Cannes-announced deal with Warner Bros. for high-profile co-productions.

Jackson said C4 aims to evolve into a multifaceted media player. Just 6.5% of revenues are currently non-broadcast, but film, video and publishing operations are all growing, and investment in new media is being quadrupled this year to $15 million or so.