Are the UK's leading broadcasters falling out of love with film' In the multichannel digital era, scheduling a popular movie in primetime can no longer guarantee a sizeable audience and there is an increasing sense that viewers do not want to consume movies on terrestrial TV.

A case in point is the recent UK television premiere of The Queen on the commercial broadcaster ITV1 in early September. While the film attracted a strong 8 million viewers, that pales in comparison with the 12.7 million viewers who watched the UK TV premiere of Billy Elliot in 2003 or the 20 million figures that blockbuster premieres on free TV generated in the territory 20 years ago.

With TV schedules under so much pressure, the space for movies in primetime is contracting. At the recent Toronto International Film Festival, a common complaint from sales agents and distributors was that broadcasters around the world were buying fewer movies - and paying less for them.

'If you started up a broadcaster from scratch, I don't know if you would actually invest in film production,' says David Thompson, who is due to leave BBC Films in the autumn after a decade at the helm.

Channel controllers are again asking the old question: why do they need to set aside money for film production when they know films will take two or three years to be delivered and will not necessarily reach a big audience anyway' Isn't it easier just to buy the finished product rather than become embroiled in the murky, precarious world of film development and minority co-production'

Europe's major broadcasters are invariably involved in producing both film and television - whether it is Mediaset and Rai in Italy, Canal Plus in France or Telemunchen in Germany. In the UK, public service broadcasters remain vital to independent feature film production.

As Tim Willis, director of film at producers' body Pact, puts it: 'The commitment of the public service broadcasters to film is absolutely essential if you want independent, culturally British films to continue to be shown to the audience and public who want to see them.'

The BBC is committed to backing film-making as part of its cultural remit - BBC Films currently has an annual budget of $20m (£10m). Channel 4, working on a similar budget, likewise sees film as a key part of its activities.

'Film has always been strongly associated with the channel as a brand,' says Channel 4's head of drama and film, Tessa Ross. 'Film, in terms of what we make and what we buy and what we show, has proved increasingly valuable both in terms of Channel 4 and our free-to-air film channel, Film4.'

'When FilmFour started,' one veteran producer points out, 'Channel 4 didn't have much of an identity. FilmFour gave it that identity.'

In the early 1980s, Channel 4-backed movies such as Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract and Neil Jordan's Angel became instantly recognisable symbols of the bold new channel. In the mid-1990s, thanks in particular to Trainspotting, the FilmFour brand was seen by international buyers as a sign of edgy, innovative fare.

Channel 4's identity is far more protean now than in 1982, but branding remains as crucial as ever to broadcasters investing in film production. One key issue facing broadcasters is ensuring their contribution is acknowledged.

'Being hidden in a film is no value at all. You might as well acquire them down the line,' says Ross. 'One of the biggest battles we have is to make sure that 'Film4 Presents' (Film4's logo) is on our projects.

Having spent time nurturing talent and projects, then to be scrubbed out of history is difficult. I have to go to my boss and say, 'It really was worthwhile. You get to play it on telly in two-and-a-half years' time. Sorry I can't get you to the Oscars!''

It is five years now since the old, autonomous FilmFour (comprising sales and distribution as well as production) was folded back into the main body of Channel 4. BBC Films is pursuing a similar strategy of centralisation and is moving from its stand-alone Soho offices back to Television Centre in West London later in the autumn.

Tessa Ross underlines the advantages of having film sit alongside other commissioning areas. 'It works creatively because talent feels there is a possibility of movement,' she says. 'Projects can grow and change shape. It allows us to make very quick decisions if we want to fully finance - if we want to respond to material we feel will play quickly and urgently on television but still has the possibility of a film life outside the UK.

'In the end, there is pure television and pure film and it is the crossover in the middle which is where we are at our most creative,' Ross explains.

Scheduling problems

In the UK, there is no question of either the BBC or Channel 4 withdrawing from film production. But, as Thompson points out, this is a volatile time for broadcaster-film relations, and this has much to do with a struggle in scheduling.

'There are a number of problems with film. One is that most of the films we [at BBC Films] have done in the past have been grown-up viewing, post-watershed. That is a bit of a conundrum. There is Newsnight (broadcast every night at 10.30pm) on BBC2 and so (features) can't go on a weekday. One of the big problems is that (features) are not 90 minutes and don't fit scheduling.'

These problems are shared by other European broadcasters. In response, one strategy has been to make more family-oriented features which can screen before the watershed. The difficulty is that this is an area in which Hollywood excels, so the competition is ferocious.

Another strategy is to back star-driven vehicles with a high-enough profile to show on the BBC's main channel. BBC Films recently helped recruit Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman for The Other Boleyn Girl and Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road. 'It's a kind of stunt that you couldn't necessarily repeat,' says Thompson.

'It's impossible to do most years and it would probably cause some consternation - if you put too many American actors in British films, naturally there's going to be some disturbance.'

Still, many compelling arguments remain for broadcasters to produce films rather than just acquire them. It is a way of keeping - and attracting - talent to a channel. Films can be shown many times and can build an audience cumulatively. If the budgets are pegged down, they can be a source of inexpensive programming.

The economic logic for broadcasters backing films is still there. Nonetheless, as David Thompson puts it: 'People are not mainly coming to television network channels for film. They are just not.'

Even so, some argue that film and TV industries enjoy a more symbiotic relationship than ever. More than 34% of the companies attending Mipcom last year worked in the feature-film sector.

That figure is expected to rise this year, with 586 exhibitors from the film sector expected at this year's event (see box, left). Meanwhile, film - along with sport - remains the key driver of growth in new digital platforms.

The BBC still shows 1,100 films a year across its four channels. Channel 4 likewise has a voracious appetite for movies. Meanwhile, the two channels' production arms still look remarkably cost-effective. With their $20m (£10m) a year, each provides a large number of films for transmission. As Tessa Ross puts it: 'We're spreading $20m into a lot of product. The value of the films that are coming back to us is many, many times that $20m.'