5 at 25 

31 March 2022 tbs.pm/75735


Technically it was flawed from the start. It was more evolutionary than revolutionary, in terms of content it brought little that was new to the table. But despite all of this, Channel 5 has made it to its twenty-fifth birthday.

It was the last of our ‘traditional’ public service channels, born in the pre-digital world into an analogue frequency range designed for four channels which simply could not accommodate a fifth. The only way it could operate was by using the ‘spare’ frequency reserved for VCRs and computer games, the outputs of which had to be re-tuned by an army of engineers doing house calls. If the VCR or games consul couldn’t be re-tuned then a filter would be fitted to the aerial cable to PREVENT Channel 5 being received and causing interference. Yeah, that’s the way to launch a new TV network.

That spare frequency (UHF channel 37) was the only one available for Channel 5, consequently it had to be broadcast from low power transmitters leaving huge gaps in its coverage to avoid it interfering with itself, so to speak. It was also a frequency in common use as a broadcast channel in nearby mainland Europe, consequently much of the south coast was well out of bounds to Channel 5. Reception was patchy to say the least, rarely available outside the major cities and always broadcast from transmitters separate to the ones anyone had an aerial pointed towards, resulting picture quality being generally akin to a wavy image in a snowstorm or a pirate video. Early viewing figures based on the limited reception areas suggest it really may have been cheaper and more effective to do house calls with a pile of VHS tapes.



Its existence was first mooted in the early ‘nineties at a time when there were many (myself included) who questioned the need for it. The idea of a fifth public service channel was cancelled more than once, being seen as a non-starter in business terms. SKY had launched their multi-channel satellite service in 1989 and had seen off rivals BSB in a merger a couple of years later, why launch another land-bound channel? When it did eventually start it was a real pup, rapidly becoming a dumping ground for Australian soaps and US re-runs abandoned by our other networks. But, for those who chose not to take out a Sky subscription and were happy to put up with the sub-standard picture quality, Channel 5 was a small step closer to the multi-channel world we have today.

For a while It could also be seen as a foretaste of the dull and tacky digital era that was about to arrive, but it was in that digital era that the channel could finally join the other four as a national network and it slowly got into its stride. The channel’s output over the years has been been as varied and patchy as its early analogue reception, largely due to a succession of different owners. It currently has a niche for social history series, many of these covering the Great Fire Of London or last days of Anne Boleyn in their true timescale over successive days are of rather exceptional quality. But the weekend schedule does still seem to be rather padded out with evenings dominated by compilations of “100 Greatest Soap Moments”, “When Live TV Goes Wrong” or two hours of “Britain’s Favourite Biscuit”, suggesting that there’s really only just enough original programming for five public service channels. Elsewhere the schedule is padded with filler borrowed or shared with some of the satellite channels (police chases or the rather wonderful eye-candy that is “Ice Road Truckers”).

Maybe looking like a hybrid of a traditional terrestrial channel and a second tier satellite service is what sets it apart from the rest, for unlike those satellite channels that seem to come and go or change names at the drop of a hat (or change of ownership), as a public service broadcaster its place is secure and as such will always appear in the top five rows of any TV programme guide. For those reasons I’m sure that whatever form public service television takes in the next twenty-five years, Channel 5 will be there in one way or another.

Stay (re)tuned…


You Say

4 responses to this article

John Flitter 31 March 2022 at 5:31 pm

‘as a public service broadcaster its place is secure and as such will always appear in the top five rows of any TV programme guide’
*with the exception of the Radio Times magazine, who has, for quite some time, put BBC4 ahead, relegating Channel 5 to the next page alongside BBC3.

Keith Martin 23 April 2022 at 12:17 pm

Hello from Ex ABC lad Keith Martin who was in and out of vision on “ABC your weekend Television in the North” and in the Midlands too – when management were desperate! Delighted to see and read with great interest how you have expanded! Wonderful! Are you part of the same group of school lads who ‘exchanged’ off-air tape recordings way, way back in the mid 1960’s ?

Harald Stelsen 2 May 2022 at 12:19 am

The two great icons of the cultural heritage bequeathed to the nation by the John Major government: Talk Radio (with Caesar the Geezer on the former BBC Radio 2 MF frequencies, now known as Sport Talk) and Channel 5 Television.

Never mind the quality, feel the weight of the shareholder dividends.

Is there a Broadcasting idiom equivalent to Gresham’s Law about counterfeit coins?

Harald Stelsen 2 May 2022 at 12:58 am

CORRECTION: Radio 1 MF frequencies [principally 1053 kHz and 1089 kHz, but also low power on 1071 kHz and 1107 kHz in some localities.]

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