As I headed off for the Channel 5 programme launch at the Oxo Tower
this week, the smell of ITV gunfire in the air, the question uppermost
in my mind was simple: how much of an impact will the new channel have
by this time next year?
It is worth underlining that the discovery of the spare frequencies
allowing this advertising-funded fifth channel to launch were identified
nine years ago. For the ’modern mainstream’ Andy Warhol-style colours of
its pounds 5 million launch advertising, the licence had to be dangled
twice before real money was committed. Channel 5, in some respects, is a
testimony to the torpor of Britain’s traditional media players and
investors who failed to see through the video retuning to the potential.
It is arriving, like a throwback, at the point when pay-per-view for
live events is about to extend from boxing to football, and
video-on-demand to premium movies.
That makes it potentially dangerous: some of TV’s best minds seem
distracted with digital.
Think how different the media landscape would look today if brave
backers had allowed Channel 5 to execute a reasonable launch three years
ITV was far less aggressive. It would certainly not have been able to
conjure up five episodes of Emmerdale during the launch week. The BBC
was only starting a ratings fight back. Channel 5 might well have been
close to taking an audience share of around nine per cent by now, and
easily found sufficient advertising to justify expanding its programme
budget above the lean pounds 130 million it currently has. Yet while
conditions would certainly be much tougher for the terrestrial channels,
Channel 5 would have had a definite impact in denting the spread of
satellite and cable.
After its launch on 30 March it is widely expected to be most welcomed
in those three-quarters of British homes who either cannot or will not
pay for multi-channel choice. Zenith Media predicts an audience share
this year of 6.2 per cent in non-satellite homes, compared with 3.3 per
cent in those with 30-plus to choose from. As such it will play its part
in helping to segment audiences further between those prepared to start
paying for TV and everyone else.
Trying to assess how the new station will do in year one is hard: ’we’ll
have to suck it and see’ say even canny advertisers who long for it to
succeed. It will be audience reaction which really counts. If the
nightly soap, Family Affairs flops, it will have a big problem on its
hands. Likewise, its heavy raft of game shows, reworked from existing
formats, may prove winners, duds or both. Channel 5 is the first channel
to systematically apply the discipline of counter-scheduling, even if it
is gutsy Channel 5 trash against staid ITV trash.
It will be a tough first year, but they’ll have to come through.