Genre on UK TV has had a boost over the past few years, thanks to satellite and cable stations, so STARBURST spoke to HORROR CHANNEL manager STEWART BRIDLE about life on the blood-drenched front line of the second most-watched movie channel and the fastest-growing channel in the UK…
The Horror Channel, formed in 2004, was rebranded as Zone Horror in 2006 before finally becoming simply Horror Channel in 2010 as part of the CBS partnership portfolio in the UK. Available on Freeview since March 2015, it now has a monthly reach of 5.3 million viewers; its profile has been raised enormously in recently by its acquisition of a run of classic Doctor Who episodes (backed by an award-winning promotional campaign), and themed film seasons of the works of visionaries such as David Lynch and Lucio Fulci.
STARBURST: Presumably it’s pretty much a given that the manager of Horror Channel is going to be a self-confessed geek?
Stewart Bridle: Well, it wasn’t quite so cool to be a geek when I was younger, but it’s nice to be able to ‘come out of the closet’ these days! All the stuff I watched and enjoyed as a kid was a great grounding for what I do now. I was a big superhero comic book reader, so I’m loving these days when you get to see it all up on the big screen; just going to see something like Avengers is my eight-year-old brain up on the screen. These are great times to live in; technology and culture have finally caught up with stuff that we were enjoying in secret. Good times.
Is it essential that you know your way around the genre in your job?
Definitely, you’ve got to know what’s out there; the new stuff that’s coming along, and the history of the genre as well. There’s such a wide range of horror material in various subgenres because when you’re choosing movies from lists sent by distributors some of them are not so obvious - not many films have ‘terror’ or ‘horror’ in the title so anyone who’s not well-versed might miss some great titles. So it helps when you can see a title on the list and think, ‘Yeah, that’s definitely going to work, that’s one I want.’ Then you need to know how to piece those movies together if you’re planning seasons and stunts, and it helps if you’ve seen them and enjoyed them.
So what would be a fairly typical ‘day in the life’ of the Channel Manager of Horror Channel?
On an average day, I could be screening new material which has been sent in to us or maybe there’s some new stuff I haven’t seen which I’m checking out – basically it’s great fun getting paid to watch a lot of movies! I can be working on the strategy for the channel for the next few months, designing how we’re going to use those movies and how we’re going to use our series, planning the night’s movies across a month or so, having meetings with other departments such as promotions and on-air, and just overseeing and making sure they’re all on board with what we’re doing, and creating the promos and other on-air elements. We’ve got a fair-sized team. The company looks after a number of other channels as well, but Horror’s always the fun one that everyone wants to work on because they really get to let loose some of their creative juices in the on-air promo department. We’ve got some very talented people here, everyone’s on board with what we’re doing and wants to create the best channel we can and make it look great. There’s a lot of love for Horror Channel here.
Can you tell us more about the actual process of acquiring titles – and if you’ve got your own personal ‘wish list’?
Basically, whenever you’re searching for product there’s a number of distributors, independent distributors and studios who have horror material and other films on their books. I get a list from them of what’s available, I go through and pick the titles – some of them I’ve seen and know, some I haven’t seen, so I get DVDs and online screeners to have a look at and I make my selection and then the acquisitions department will negotiate to acquire those titles. There’s always a number of titles I really want to see on the channel, but we’re one movie channel amongst many and obviously everyone’s always trying to get material for their channel so you’re always up against other channels and bigger channels. The bigger titles are often taken, which is unfortunate, but sometimes we win and get some great titles. I’m a John Carpenter fan, so for me the Holy Grail would be to get The Thing on the channel; it’s one of my all-time favourites and I’d love to get it! I watch out for it and hope it’ll become available for us eventually, but I’d love to get other Carpenter stuff like Prince of Darkness, They Live and The Fog so we could run a Carpenter season and maybe that’ll happen. They’re popular titles so if another channel picks them up before us they’re out of bounds, but sometimes these things appear and we make a play for them. The original Dawn of the Dead is another one I’d love to be able to get. But what we like to do which a lot of the other channels don’t is to pick up some of the smaller independent stuff because there are some great titles out there which you won’t see anywhere else. We can get some really great UK TV premieres; we’ve just had the zombie movies The Dead and Savaged, which did well for us recently, and The Day which is an apocalyptic thriller. It’s about giving movies like that the opportunity to reach a larger audience because some of them are fantastic and they really need to be seen and you’re not going to see them on any other channel. We put them out there in prime time and give them as much exposure as we can and that’s great for us.
So are you keen to support up-and-coming talent as well as promoting and screening lesser-known titles?
Absolutely, it’s about trying to be slightly different from the other channels out there, bringing something new and supporting up-and-coming film-makers. We’ve been involved for the last two years in the Short Cuts to Hell competition, finding brand new filmmakers and giving them their start. Hubert’s Ghost, a movie which won last year, is about to go into production, co-funded by us and it’s got a great new team behind it. One of the priorities for the channel is to find and support new horror talent. Hopefully, that’s the sort of thing we can move into more in the future. But it’s really making sure that the genre in the UK thrives and survives, and it’s fantastic if we’re in a position to be a part of that.
Do you suspect that perhaps the channel still isn’t taken seriously because of the reputation of its prior incarnations?
Well the channel’s been around for ten years and it started as a very niche channel showing some low-end straight-to-DVD stuff, and it’s taken a while for us to turn the channel around because we were probably seen as a very niche, down-the-bottom-end of the cable/satellite EPG kind of thing. But over the last five or six years, we’ve begun to change that perception with our seasons devoted to the likes of Dario Argento and David Cronenberg; we’ve shown that we know our stuff and we take it very seriously. But doing that kind of activity and showing those kinds of movies has recently turned things around. That was already underway when I came on board, so we were just continuing to hold that torch and make sure the channel continues to be entertaining above all, but also to have a wide breadth of material, to continue with seasoned programming, having some fun seasons and some seasons to show what we’re really capable of, what we can really do and to hopefully be the authoritative voice.
Nabbing the rights to classic Doctor Who was a real coup last year, although in some ways the show seemed like a bit of an odd fit for Horror Channel...
We’d been looking at Doctor Who for some time just because we felt it connected with our core demographic audience. People say it’s a strange fit, but people had a lot of their earliest taste of horror with Doctor Who and that was the angle we were going for because some of those stories were quite terrifying when you’re eight years old, and even today you can sit and watch them and some of the storylines can give you goosebumps. I’m a huge fan myself so getting the opportunity to be around on the channel when we managed to reach an agreement with the BBC, and to be involved with choosing the stories and putting together the award-winning promotional campaign was so exciting. Just that series alone brought us to a whole new audience who probably wouldn’t have checked us out before and now we’re available on Freeview we’re attracting viewers who are able to watch those old stories so it’s been a great product for us.
How conscious are you of the British 9pm watershed in relation to the strength of the material you can show and is there anything you’ve felt was too strong even for Horror?
We’re not allowed to show ‘pure’ horror before 9pm, otherwise Ofcom would be very unhappy. The schedule is almost split in half with the daytime section - which is mainly series and daytime movies, and we use that for cult fantasy/sci-fi series, keeping it within the same genre areas - and post-9pm is where we can let rip with the true horror movies and give fans what they want. We make a point of not censoring our movies. We’ve shown things in the past such as Martyrs, which probably no other channel would touch; it’s fantastic, and very gruelling to watch so we’re not afraid of going to those dark places! There’s never really been a conversation where we’ve said ‘I don’t think we should show that’ because we have to be brave as a channel as long as we don’t come to blows with Ofcom over it and as long as we show it at an appropriate time of the evening. We’ve had some sexploitation stuff like Bare Behind Bars and Nude Nuns with Big Guns, and they’ve gone on to be some of the best-received product we’ve put out. I think the viewers understand that we’re prepared to be as brave as we can.
Do you ever worry about crossing that sometimes blurred line between horror and science fiction?
That’s a good point. We’ve had movies like Dune, which is very much a sci-fi movie but I think it’s also a cult piece, which an audience into horror would generally enjoy. It comes down to a gut feeling if we look at a movie and think, ‘Well, actually that’s pure science fiction’ - something like 2001 for example – because obviously we prefer anything we show to have a horror element. But I think the darkness in Dune’s production design qualifies it, and recently we’ve had The Arrival, which is another sci-fi action piece but we felt it was a good fit and it worked for us. Also Outlander, which is as much a monster movie as anything else. Our daytime schedule has a lot of sci-fi in it because it’s hard to find any horror material you can make work in daytime without cutting it to ribbons, which we don’t want to do. So our daytime schedule is made up of sci-fi and fantasy, but we’ve got a few horror movies in there, things like The Stepford Children, and a few Hammers which we can play during the day, but shows like Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk have been great successes for us because they’re the kind of series that really connect with our core audience; they remember them and want to watch them again and of course, all the old Star Treks have been great for us to have around.
As a predominantly-archive channel, how concerned are you by the rise of on-demand and streaming services where people can pick and choose what they watch and when without recourse to the traditional TV schedule?
Obviously the rise of streaming and VOD services is a concern for all broadcasters, but linear TV still very much has a place in people’s media consumption. There’s still a lot to be said for providing people with a curated schedule for entertainment, something that someone has chosen and presented to them specifically and a shared experience of watching the same as other people at the same time. The convenience of services like Netflix is great, but sometimes there’s just so much choice to wade through that it can be daunting and I like to feel that we take that away and give the viewer what we feel is something they could enjoy, whether that’s an old favourite or something new.
What can viewers look forward to in the next few months?
We’re still locking down our movies for the rest of the year but we’ve got some great UK TV premieres coming up including From The Dark . So there’s a mixture of everything there from new to mainstream to the back-end of the video nasty/VHS collection! A bit of everything for everyone!
Which seems to sum up the ethos of Horror Channel...
Exactly! We want to represent contemporary and classic subgenres after dark, and in the daytime to get as many of the great cult classic sci-fi fantasy shows as we can, but generally just to keep entertaining people whilst also flying the horror flag in the UK as best we can.
HORROR CHANNEL is available on SKY 319, Virgin 149, Freeview 70, Freesat 138 and TalkTalk 487.