As of this week, the Sony Movie Channel is no more. A staple of the Freeview era of television, the SMC and its spin-offs have allowed viewers to enjoy half-decent cinema, in their own home, free, for years. But now the channel has come to an end. Instead, the future is Great!
Great! Movies is the name of the new channel that is to replace the old channel but will show the same films in the same place. There will be similarly rebranded siblings too – Great! Movies Action and Great! Movies Classic but not Great! Movies Asshole! Thanks to its agenda-setting break with syntax and the attendant suggestion of a complete critical lobotomy, Great! Movies has all the hallmarks of a swift right hook from modernity.
The immediate question, with or without the addition of several exclamation marks, would be: why? Why would you ditch a name synonymous with cinema for something that could be anything from a brand of dog food to a type of scouring pad? What Great! strategy is at work?
It’s not like the channel is struggling. “It’s one of those things that if you don’t watch them you assume no one else does, but actually the audience for the Sony Movie Channel is quite big,” says Tom Harrington, a TV expert at the research company Enders Analysis. On average, just under a million people in the UK watch at least three minutes of the channel a day, which is more than Comedy Central or Cartoon Network and about half the audience of Dave. Over the past year, its most popular films have been Die Hard with a Vengeance, a Jason Statham vehicle called Homefront in which James Franco plays a Louisiana meth baron, and Pretty Woman.
“I’d say about 70% of their audience is over 55,” Harrington says. “That’s pretty old. But the audience has been stable over the past few years. And one thing about an older audience is that they’re less likely to be recording, watching it later and fast-forwarding the ads.” As a free-to-air channel SMC is dependent on ads and, like many similar channels, it runs short news bulletins in the middle of its films to allow it to get around OfCom rules limiting the amount you can show an hour.
Sony Movie Channel appears to be doing a fair job of channelling Sony movies to the public and making money off the back of it. As far as the TV audience is concerned, a new name is unlikely to do much more, according to Harrington. “Maybe it will catch people’s eyes on the EPG,” he says, “but most viewers are going to look up what is actually on rather than the name of the channel.”
Brand consultant Cara Bendon isn’t exactly persuaded by Great! either. She describes the name as “fairly generic” and says it “doesn’t feel like a considered, consumer-focused choice” but more like a decision driven by business concerns. “If you want your name to make people believe you’re great, it needs to sound aspirational,” she says. “The word ‘Great’ and the exclamation mark have a more dated, nostalgic feel, reminiscent of top 10 lists of films.”
So what is going on? At this stage it should be pointed out that Great! is under new ownership. Earlier this month Sony sold its UK TV channels to a US investment firm called Narrative Capital. A company which invests in “the entire life cycle and global distribution of intellectual property”, Narrative has bought the channels and licensed the same content – everything from the Sony movie library, plus a load of TV shows – but decided to give it a new name.
Narrative Entertainment’s chief executive, Daniel Levin, suggests the name is a “wink, a nod to an old friend”. “If you asked me what Rambo or Blade Runner 2049 or The Graduate have in common,’” he says, “I’d say: they’re great!”
Levin explains Great! values in other, similarly difficult to quite get on board with formulations, but he also acknowledges that, yes, the Great! channels are likely to be relaunched as an advertising-funded video on demand service and that, yes, those services will probably be made available to more countries than just the UK. With that in mind, there are only so many names that work on TV, on an app, with old and young people, in Sweden as well as Swindon. And superlatives work harder than most.
“Over one in two adults aged 16 or over watched this portfolio in 2020,” Levin says, eventually explaining his investment. “We’ve zeroed on in on this [business] because we think it’s a terrific springboard and a wonderful way to connect with lovers of film and entertainment. It’s not for a lack of seeing what’s out there. We’re very excited by the opportunity.”
It comes to something when you’re pining for the days of channels being named after a good, old-fashioned Japanese electronics conglomerates, but at least the Sony Movie Channel meant something. As Bendon observes: “Sony’s name is synonymous with high quality technology.” (She also notes that Sony has a reputation for changing the names of its channels, and the previous name for the Sony Movie Channel was Movies4Men.) Now, the price of embracing a global digital future appears to be a name that is less a guarantee of quality and more a vague anaesthetised sentiment equivalent to the feeling you get when you find 50p down the back of the sofa. Such are the side-effects of progress.