Five wins 

1 October 2002

As a station Channel 5 has always had rather a cheap and tacky image. This is not particularly surprising given the station produces 24 hours of programming a day on a fraction of what its rivals spend.

As the newest of the five terrestrial channels the station has had an uphill struggle to get into the hearts and minds of the viewing public. Recently the battle has intensified. After an initial few years of being little more than a national joke, the recently re-branded Five is fighting back with avengeance.

To be fair to the station, its low budget beginnings were inevitable. Breaking into a market dominated by four large, much loved players was always going to be hard. Getting people to give the station a chance was, predictably, difficult, and a channel with low budgets to spend would always mean that there would be fewer viewers. In the world of the vicious circle, fewer viewers means less money to spend on programming.

The costs of retuning millions of video recorders to enable viewers to get the service in the first place meant that money that should have been spent on programming had to be diverted elsewhere. Of course there would have been little point in spending the money on programmes if large chunks of the population would have been unable to view them in the first place.

Even now, five years on, Channel 5 only reaches about 80% of the population. Admittedly this is greater than originally envisioned, but it was an inevitable consequence of being forced to have low power transmissions to ensure the fifth channel doesn’t interfere with any other broadcasts.

Despite its low budget beginnings, the station ploughed on. Its much derided move into soft-core erotic films may have given the channel negative press, but it helped get the viewers in and the advertisers loved it, so much so that an attempt to completely ditch the films in 2001 lead to the advertisers fighting against the move.

Most of the programming that filled its early schedules has disappeared, but several key parts still remain. Sport still takes up the bulk of the overnight schedules five nights a week and the station’s award winning news service has gone from strength to strength.

The evening movies have also proved to be successful with viewers. The quality of the movies may have been pretty awful in the beginning, but the contracts with the studios paid off and, slowly but surely, better films arrived. The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan have been amongst the recent big names to be signed up.

With its evening movies doing well, the station started looking at its early evening time slot. The station has regularly been scheduling arts programmes in its 7pm time slot, and its early evening documentaries on all subjects have been meeting with critical acclaim.

The pre-watershed timing of Five’s factual programming has helped contribute to its success attracting viewers who want some serious factual programming instead of quiz shows and soap operas on the other side. Even the half-hour length of most of the programmes has helped to attract viewers who might not want to spend an hour watching such a programme.

Five’s arts programming in particular has enabled it to pull out a trump card, enabling the station to boast that it had more weekly arts programming than its rivals did. When you’re trying to shed a cheap and cheerful image, it’s a useful card to be able to play.

The aggressive stance is part of the channels ambition to push Channel 4 into third place, and become the second biggest commercial broadcaster, with a proclaimed aim to become “Channel 4 but without the boring bits.”

And trying it is. Whilst many proclaimed it to be a big risk, its poaching of ‘Home and Away’ has paid off with large audiences, and its high profile hiring of BBC Radio One DJ Chris Moyles for a live nightly programme has shown it means business.

The aim to push Channel 4 into third place is no mean feat. Five currently has an audience share of 6.4%, with an aim of getting 10%. Channel 4 on the other hand is currently running at around 9%, and has a bigger programming budget to boot. However, Five have so far shown that it isn’t necessarily how much money you have, but the way you spend it.

Its current tactics appear to be working well and so far the station appears to be trying to do some imaginative scheduling in order to attract the ratings. This is in sharp contrast to rival ITV1, where the aim of the game seems to be flog a formula until it dies, and then a bit longer.

ITV1’s formula isn’t particularly working very well either. Audience levels are pretty poor, but then many would say that the programming is even worse. Five is a position to take advantage of ITV1’s poor health and it is attacking hard and fast.

Whether it can pull off its aims before ITV1 recovers is another matter, but the station has a strong team in place and a desire to win.

With its recent re-branding and new programming, Five is taking on the competition in a big way. Whether its quite ready to be the David of the TV world, fighting the mighty Goliath of ITV1, remains to be seen, but the fight looks like it will be an interesting one.

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Liverpool, Thursday 24 November 2022