By Alan Fountain

Imagine a television channel open to the creative work of independents throughout the world. A channel which celebrated aesthetic and political diversity. A channel at the service of its users, whether producers or audience. A channel which took up the challenge of ‘globalism’ and aimed to be adequate to the complexities of the planet at the end of the twentieth century.

It is technologically achievable. The producers are there. There is a huge audience waiting. But at present such a channel does not exist.

Mondial Television’s objective is to bring such a channel into being.

Internationalism on television, as distinct from cultural domination by American networks, the Sky empire, Canal + or the BBC, does not exist. The domination of global television by companies driven by the search for profit or cultural imperialism or a mixture of both requires inequality for its success. To treat the world as a market entails the relative weakness or defeat of strong autonomous cultures.

Mondial will treat each country and culture as equally important and, in doing so, will bring together an array of programmes from across the world, then, gradually, in a set of global partnerships, transmit those programmes to as many regions of the world as possible.

It is many decades since the so-called information imbalance between North and South was identified as a problem of critical proportions. The flow from South to North of information, but also, more widely, of films and other television genres, remains a rarity.

In a recent study the European Commission revealed that a very small number of films or programmes cross European borders.

And, in spite of the volume domination of American television product across the world, most viewers in America, let alone outside, are unable to see some of the best independent work being produced in the United States.

It is also clear that there are very few television cultures in the world which enable the consistent access of independent directors and producers to their screens. And, even more critical, that in very many countries the basic conditions for even the most modest of independent production do not exist.

It is absolutely evident that the use of television to serve the democratic political, aesthetic and individual aspirations of the world’s population is a project badly off course. On the whole, television in its patterns of ownership and content, reflects the disposition of global economic and political power.

In attempting to establish some small counterweights to these existing ‘realities’ Mondial aims to explore  television not only as a force for democracy and equality but also as a representation and celebration of creative talents throughout the world, and as the bearer of important messages from the majority who have no voice.

Brave words and aspirations, but is such a project necessary and, even more to the point, is it possible? A brief look at the current situation in the U.K. and Western Europe can provide the beginnings of an answer to both questions.

Within the next three to five years there really is going to be an explosion of new channels in Britain. Sky have already announced their intention to introduce over a hundred digital channels on satellite during 1996 and the Government’s recent announcement heralded at least twenty terrestrial digital channels by 1997. Add to these a potentially vast number of channels from other European countries and it is clear that we are on the edge of a new age of television. The means of delivery of any of these channels is also rapidly evolving. There is the possibility of delivery via satellite, cable and telephone, the arrival of video on demand, and, over the horizon, a merging of television and the Internet. By the turn of the century it will be possible to sit on a rock in the middle of Dartmoor, interacting by fax, ‘phone, video and the Internet using a piece of equipment scarcely larger than a cigarette packet!

Virtually all the speculation and discussion of this future which appears in both the trade and the wider media centres on technology and, to a lesser degree, ownership. Content is hardly mentioned. Social and cultural value, apart from the almost universally held view that the BBC is the sole repository of such values for us, the consumer, is not discussed.

The debate about the introduction of terrestrial digital channels almost exclusively concerns how the cake will be cut amongst the existing national and global players. The gatekeepers of the new system will be multinational companies whose primary motive will be profit. Mr. Murdoch, who has run strategic rings round everyone else for the past decade, will have control of substantial parts of both satellite and terrestrial television.

The Government intends to reserve space for the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Channel Five companies. This has to be welcomed in a context where the entire digital system could have been thrown completely open to the market.

Of course it is vital that at least the BBC and Channel Four should be protected. The justification for also doing this for ITV companies and Channel Five is less clear. But the important process of protection serves also to mask the deficiencies of the existing channels.

Both BBC and Channel Four are aesthetically conservative, nationally minded, beyond anything but the mildest accountability, and, in spite of their protected space, too heavily driven by market considerations. They might be amongst the best in the world but they are not beyond criticism, radical reassessment and improvement.

There is of course no reason why this Government or a future Labour administration, should not have used the opportunity of digitalisation and new channels to open up a widening of the public service space. One of the multiplex providers, the gatekeepers of the system, could have been reserved for public service channels, the BBC and Channel Four, but also for new channels which could be charged with the development and modernisation of the very concept and historical development of public service.

The Government states that it wishes to see the new digital era ‘launched with a diversity of services catering for different tastes and interests’. At the same the system will be commercially driven. The certain casualty will be diversity in exactly the same way that cable has failed to deliver diversity.

The failure of British television to move decisively beyond Reith’s concept of ‘public service’, its inability to elude the straightjacket of the British class system and its innate ‘little Englander’ nationalism have combined to produce a public service system which is largely immune to democratic or internationalist perspectives. In the last decade it has been the market forces unleashed by Thatcher, egged on by Murdoch, rather than a critical or political challenge, which has shaped the British television landscape.

Our conception of Mondial as a channel based upon internationalism, and at the service of its audience in a direct and democratic way, is spiritually and politically closer to the Internet in its present form than to any existing television channel. Mondial would be defined by the imagination of its producers and their passionate need to communicate. As far as possible Mondial would be defined by what producers and audience wanted it to be.

On a British rather than a European or global canvas, Jeremy Isaacs’ original vision of Channel Four could be described in similar terms. Isaacs’ great virtue was to welcome and celebrate the work of the creator, the independent director. This was coupled with an understanding that the more Channel Four tried to control and define from within, the less it would be capable of realising its founding vision. In that sense those working at Channel Four were understood as guardians of an idea embodied within the site of the Channel rather than the owners of that site.

The problems within British public service television are comparatively slight by comparison with the situation in many other Western European countries, where the loss of confidence in ‘public service’ and the onslaught of the market are far more advanced than in the U.K. For example, in Spain and Italy the large public service channels are in deep, if not terminal, crisis. Under the market pressure sweeping Europe the public service channels in Germany, France and even the Scandinavian countries increasingly lack confidence and self-belief.

In some of the most powerful parts of the European Commission television and the whole panoply of new media are seen as little more than a set of market opportunities. With the notable exception of ARTE, the direction of European television is market-driven. This, not surprisingly, is resulting in more channels but less diversity, less choice.

Ironically, at precisely the moment that technological development enables a massive flow of programmes between countries and cultures, the near triumph of the free market over public service and regulation ensures the opposite tendency.

The Market Stalinism so accurately analysed in the Editorial of this issue of Vertigo has produced an apparent impasse, a total crisis, for those people, whether producers or audiences, who are concerned about the cultural and political future of television. Understanding this state of affairs is not difficulty. The market has no necessary relationship to cultural values and social or democratic purpose.

The question is whether the creation of new alternatives not completely defined by market objectives is possible. Perhaps, as the Editorial suggests, we are beginning to emerge on the other side of over a decade of defeatism. Many people are beginning to realise, perhaps one should say to remember, that much of what they would like to see or create cannot happen within the market alone. The activities of Berlusconi and Murdoch have created fears of a media-political monopoly.

The Mondial project is gradually gaining support in many quarters. The perception that Mondial, or channels like it, must find a place in the multi-channel future is one shared by many European Members of Parliament, and support to develop and pilot Mondial further will be supported by the European Commission in 1996. Many M.E.P.s are alarmed by the direction European television is taking if left to the market alone.

Similarly Mondial is beginning to find allies within the media and other industries, people who welcome such a cultural and democratic project, and sense that a combination of private and public finances can be brought together to support it.

Reaching Mondial’s long term global goals is not a simple task but finding one small space amongst hundreds of channels is not an unrealistic dream. Besides, what alternative is there?

‘Everyone is talking of a revival of British films. The phrase is hardly felicitous. Where in the history of British pictures are to be found films with the aesthetic merits of Calgari, Warning Shadows or The Last Laugh? Rather should we speak of the birth of British films, but that would be too obviously a confession of weakness. If there is genius in a country it is bound to come out, to make itself felt in some way or other. Remember that England was supplying films to America before the war and then realize what a stigma it would be for us, after all these years, to speak of the birth of British films. So we point at dreadful scarecrow of the past and gibber of the revival of British films.’ – Oswell Blakeston in Close Up

‘Kino, the workers’ film organisation reports that so great has been the demand for the film Potemkin that further copies were required to meet it. These were ordered from the film-printers in the usual way.

‘Delivery not being made on the date promised, inquiry to the printers produced the reply that the matter is being held up owing to a Government circular having been received which cautions us against the reproduction of Russian propaganda films

‘This direct interference by the Government reveals to what lengths they are prepared to go to stop working-class audiences from these films although no law exists to prohibit their exhibition.

‘Kino has succeeded in circulating Potemkin extensively in the Greater London area despite the LCC ban, and the fact that workers are actually seeing the film has undoubtedly frightened the government…’ – Daily Worker

‘Such films as Henry V, Brief Encounter and The Seventh Veil provide ample proof that we have a serious and intelligent competitor in the motion picture market.’ – Samuel Goldwyn in Kine Weekly

Alan Fountain was the first Senior Commissioning Editor for Independent Film & Video at Channel 4.