Channel 5 RIP?

Channel 5? Or, Five? Huh! What is it good for? In monetary terms about £100M, which is £900M less than it was valued at in 2000. Has Richard Desmond bagged a bargain? Or a white elephant?I worked at Channel 5 for 11 years, 8 months, exactly. I joined in 1996 and took voluntary redundancy in 2008. They knew they weren’t going to hit target that year and started to hack and slash. I worked in a department of 29 and 7 of us went. A year later a further 7 went. Channel 5, although a broadcaster, was relatively small: a third the size of C4. It had always struggled but was a lovely place to work.

History lesson. Why bother? How did C5 come in to being? Well, once upon a time there were only 4 channels and two of those were commercial (ITV and C4). The advertisers bent Thatcher’s ear and, in the spirit of open competition and “choice”, convinced the old girl that a third commercial channel was needed. Because with a third place to advertise the advertisers could get ITV and C4 to reduce their rates. And that’s it, really. C5 was never really about extending consumer choice. It was a business decision.

And so bids were tendered. Remember the 5-colour stripes of the original C5? That came about because the first anyone saw of C5 were bill-boards telling people to get ready and to re-tune. This was a necessary part of the deal, no matter who got the contract: retuning VCRs to get the new signal. 11 million homes. It did mean a great database was created across the UK of who lived where – better than the 10-year census! Anyway, whilst those posters went up, the winning bid was contested, not least by Richard Branson. In fact, his bid was so good the other complainants gave up as they were outdone. This dragged on for months and, with a launch date set in 1997, time was running out. Thus, the billboards with the TV tuning stripes became the template for the channel’s look.

The Spice Girls were brought in early to launch the channel, just before they went mega and shifted crisps and Pepsi, like all Big Acts. So, by the time the channel launched, the group were the biggest thing on the planet. Launch was over a Bank Holiday, so the monday papers were full of colour photos of the girls at Marble Arch, pushing the button. I was there. A fun day.  The whole build up was done for relatively little money and the people behind the scenes were bright, smart, funny, helping this little channel punch above its weight.

C5 has always come in for a slagging. Dawn Airey’s famous quote about “films, football, fucking” being a classic example. She actually said the channel was “about more than” those 3Fs. And she was right. Newspapers, of course, love to slag telly as it’s direct competition for them but seeing the Daily Mail cover with “Channel Filth”, after the Cheggers Willy incident, was Frothing At The Mouth beyond the call of duty. Twats.

C5 was like a nippy speedboat compared to the oil-tankers of BBC and ITV. It could  be agile, pro-active and opportunistic. They rapidly became a sort of Research & Development department for other broadcasters. An example: sunday night war documentaries. C5 started buying in docs about Nazis which rated well. Within 3 weeks BBC2 started repeating “The World At War”, a 30 year old series (produced by a young David Elstein who was C5′s first CEO, bizarrely). Another example: docs on the sex industry. “Sex & Shopping” went out late at night and got viewers. Porn, for want of a better title, was/is big business and C5 reflected that. After initial disapproving tutting, within 2 years ITV was making its own series about the sex industry. Who knew these things would find viewers? Nobody, until C5 started doing them. C4′s “Body Shock”? Have you ever seen C5′s “Extraordinary People”? And so on.

Ok, not all C5′s output was up to much. Milkshake in the mornings has always done well. Afternoon movies did well, not all of them “Columbo” episodes. Jeff Ford, who has survived the recent C5 Board cull, is a great show buyer. Because of him C5 got the “CSI” franchise, “Prison Break”, “The Shield” etc. He has a good eye. A lot of talent got their break on C5 too: Graham Norton; Simon Pegg; Kirsty Young.

Miracles on a budget is how I describe C5. My job was in the Creative Services department. Basically anything on your screen that isn’t a programme or an advert is filtered through Creative Services: promos; continuity; idents; menus; branding. We often got the back-handed compliment that the promos looked great but the shows weren’t as good. Budgets were small and the business target has pretty much been the same since day one – 5-6% of total audience, which means the average viewer watching 2 to 3 shows a week.

Sadly, by the time C5 launched, Sky was already well established (not least with the Premiership) and other channels had started. 13 years on, the landscape has changed completely with 40 Freeview channel, +1s, downloads, iPlayer, Gaming, the Web etc. Who needs C5 now? Where does it belong? Who’s it for? At launch it was ‘modern mainstream”, sitting between the existing channel positions of stuffy (BBC), downmarket (ITV) and too-cool-for-school (C4). Bits of C5 now could be E4, Bravo, Dave, ITV2 or 3 or even 4, BBC3, FX, Hallmark, Fox and so on.

Desmond has said he’ll pump in £1.5BILLION over 5 years which is great news. Real “fuck off” money! I don’t know what the content will be like but he’s got enough clout to make things happen, not least with his ownership of print titles like OK magazine. The move to Docklands will take some of the fun away. Docklands or Covent Garden. Which would you rather?

I wish the channel well, not just because I still know people working there. After 13 years it’s managed to survive and a bit of TLC might help, even if it does come from Desmond. And remember kids, it’s only telly.

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