Five by Five 

1 September 2001

This Easter, Channel 5 celebrated its fifth birthday with a big ‘no expense spared’ party for employees. A celebration of this sort seems optimistic in a media market that was in decline even before the events of 11 September, especially when barely two years ago the channel was being written off as a minority item doomed to be barely a footnote in UK broadcasting history.

It is necessary to review the story so far in order to discover exactly what has happened and why Channel 5 may still threaten to become a major media player in the UK. Like all the other terrestrial channels, Channel 5 got off to a shaky start – only available in selected areas of the country or via cable television. Large parts of the country (especially in the South of England) were denied the pleasure of watching the Spice Girls launching the channel with “The Power of Five”.

Channel 5 was almost an afterthought to begin with, since the analogue UHF transmitter network was specifically designed for nationwide coverage of only four television channels. The Channel 5 proposal was – cynically – a result of a money-making exercise in order to help boost the Treasury funds. This lack of channel space was also due to the possibility of interference from existing transmissions from continental Europe, and the ITC often had to consult other countries to avoid interfering with existing services.

Even when it is available, Channel 5 transmissions are often of relatively low power, sometimes at a separate site, and often on a different polarisation from the other four channels in order to avoid any problems, so reception is often poor even when it is supposedly available. The channel becoming available via the Astra satellite then eased the initial availability problem, and a year later Channel 5 became available on SkyDigital and digital terrestrial, meaning that more people than ever would have the ability to watch the channel. Viewing figures were minuscule to begin with and largely stayed that way except for special events such as football matches and films like Independence Day. These sometimes edged over the magic one million mark and audience figures slowly and steadily built up as availability improved. Channel 5’s programmes were and still are of the cheap and cheerful variety for most of the time. It has a bigger budget than Sky One for its own programming, but can’t match Sky One’s exclusive access to popular US imports.

Channel 5 in many ways can count itself as being very lucky. The late 1990s had seen a decline in fortunes for its major competitors – the ITV franchise changes that occurred at the start of 1993 took one major player out of the market and softer touch regulation ensured that ITV franchise consolidation started to take hold. As a result, standards slowly started to slip and variety was replaced by repetition as franchises tried to maximise profits at the expense of other factors such as expenditure.

The BBC’s John Birt had previously tried to placate the Conservatives with cost cutting measures and outsourcing, and after 1997 the advent of extra digital channels such as News 24 caused a further drain on resources with no extra cash available for core programming. Both BBC1 and ITV1 have been accused of being ‘out of touch’ with young people and having an increasingly staid-looking line-up of programmes.

BSkyB has been pumping money into SkyDigital and acquiring rights for various sporting events along with giving away set top boxes to gain market share. All this means there is little in terms of original programming beyond that inherited from US imports, and ONdigital (now ITV Digital) tried to compete with Sky with a much smaller budget and audience and failed.

Sky One is still the strongest direct competitor to Channel 5, being more popular than Channel 5 in homes with multichannel television and a strong selection of US imports such as “Enterprise” and “The Simpsons” on a UK exclusive first-run basis, but it is much weaker on UK-produced programming.

Channel 4’s spin-off E4 is aimed at a similar viewing demographic but has been” far less successful even with strong branding and a diet of programmes like Big Brother Uncut” (by far its biggest hit), “Friends” and “ER”. BBC Choice relies too heavily on repeats along with cheap shows produced on a limited budget to gain an impression, and in the long term will be replaced by BBC Three.

Given the monumental changes that have occurred in the past five years, Channel 5 has evolved to match them. The shaky start forced it to gain as big audience as possible using a very small budget compared with the other terrestrials, though having the likes of (initially) Pearson and United News as shareholders helped considerably when it came to sourcing cheap programming. Both companies had existing production facilities along with programmes and formats already produced for other channels that it could either reuse or acquire at low cost in order to ease the burden.

The channel picked up the terrestrial rights to selected football matches and movies, and took the step of showing soft pornography late at night which certainly helped to gain them notoriety along with those desperately needed extra viewers and column inches of publicity. These downmarket steps were evidently ones of desperation, since a poor reputation makes it all the more difficult to gain credibility with the bulk of viewers that are used to the ‘higher standards’ of the other four terrestrial channels.

Channel 5’s audience share was pegged at a less than impressive 5% as a consequence (the launch target being 10%), so to improve on this figure some radical rethinking was required. Pan-European broadcaster RTL now has the majority shareholding in Channel 5, and it recently announced that it has no more interest in acquiring any part of ITV; instead it will be using Channel 5 for its long-term strategy in the UK. This seems to show that RTL must have a strong confidence in the future of the channel. Both BBC-1 and ITV1 have abandoned the use of US imports during peak time, which in turn helps Channel 5 to pick up on selected new and old imports and make use of them. Channel 5’s current programme chief Kevin Lygo (ex-Channel 4) has made used of two such series, the critically acclaimed CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) and Law and Order as a cornerstone for Saturday night viewing. He has also brought Kirsty Young back to Channel 5 News, a news bulletin which had pioneered the concept of a less formal news presentation style in the UK to critical acclaim.

Various ‘tired old shows’ such as “Fort Boyard”, “Night Fever” and the “Movie Chart Show” have either been axed or will be dropped shortly – a move that some may say has been long overdue. Introducing “Home and Away” to the channel has also helped attract around 2 million viewers on a regular basis (though keeping them may be harder), and a semi-regular documentary slot – something that ITV1 lacks – illustrates that Channel 5 is now deadly serious about improving its image.

Channel 5 nearly managed to acquire “The Simpsons” from the BBC as well. The intent behind the bid further underlines the fact that Channel 5 is no longer just content to play second fiddle to the other terrestrial broadcasters.

For the future, Channel 5 still has one key advantage which is often overlooked – as a terrestrial channel it qualifies to have its programmes printed in larger print along with the other four channels. Therefore it isn’t shoved in amongst the likes of UK Gold and BBC Choice in the mass of small print of the other digital channel listings, though Sky One is unsurprisingly given greater prominence in newspapers owned by News International.

Nevertheless, Channel 5 will still have its work cut out to compete with the established terrestrial channels and will face fierce competition from Sky One, a rebranded BBC One, and possibly from the forthcoming BBC Three, plus ITV if it can get its act together before it’s too late. Channel 5 may have some advantages as being like almost a halfway house between the major terrestrial channels and the smaller digital channels, but must attract viewers from both traditional and niche channels simultaneously whilst avoiding being labelled an irrelevance in both camps.

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