IT COULD BE A JOB FOR ROLAND RAT
Channel 5 reckoned the advertisers would give it six months to get it right. That time is nearly up.. So what can the people who brought us the great retuning fiasco do to head off ultimate disaster?
Sunday 07 September 1997
Last Monday was not a normal night in the life of The Jack Docherty Show. The 300 people who queued to get into the Whitehall Theatre were dwarfed by the serpent's tail of mourners waiting patiently round the corner in the Mall to sign the books of condolence at St James's Palace. As a mark of respect, the show recorded did not go out later that same evening; instead it was held over for broadcast later in the week. But even without this unique change to the schedule, it was an unconventional edition of Channel 5's flagship show.
On top of the usual three guests - in this case, Mike Myers, Jack Palance and Edwyn Collins - Docherty interviewed two more who weren't available any other night. One of them was a comedian called Jeff Green, of whom half the audience had never heard. The other was Ryan Giggs, making his chat-show debut. Most of the audience had turned up to see the footballer, but, small surprise, the comedian was far more entertaining. "Beat that, Ryan Giggs," said Green to the theatre audience as he left the stage, having unburdened himself of a relentless series of jokes mostly involving his own colon. Since it first appeared, when Channel 5 began broadcasting at the end of March, The Jack Docherty Show has found itself in just such a cleft stick. Are the audience, and by extension the advertisers, more readily seduced by the hilarious nobody than the dull superstar?
Just as in Germany you're not meant to mention the war, in televisionland it's considered impolite to mention the Relaunch. Jack Docherty has been on holiday from his own programme for eight weeks this summer, and in his absence a variety of guest hosts have taken his place in a show called Not the Jack Docherty Show. Those who were watching Docherty resume the reins last week - there are roughly 300,000 each night - may have noticed a new theme tune and title sequence, and a novel feature in which Docherty shakes hands with his guests who are lined up backstage before he comes on. There's also a new house band called Blair, a new floor manager called Melissa who is, to say the least, telegenic, a new producer with a background in comedy, and a new running gag about Docherty's attempts to give up cigarettes. What we have here is Not the Jack Docherty Show Relaunch - a revamping in all but name.
The biggest change was reserved for the end of the week. Earlier this year Chris Evans asked his employers at Radio 1 to let him take Fridays off. The station's controller, Matthew Bannister, refused and lost his services altogether. Jack Docherty tabled an identical request to Channel 5 over the summer. They acquiesced, perhaps mindful that to forfeit the presenter who almost singlehandedly led the channel's pre-launch promotional charge would have left the cupboard very bare indeed. Thus the nightly experiment, in which Docherty exhaustingly aped the five-times-a-week machismo of his American forerunners David Letterman and Jay Leno, has been ditched. The quest for the holy grail of television has been called off. And one of the key boasts of the Channel 5 business plan has been quietly revoked.
BY ANY standards Channel 5 is undergoing a troubled infancy. As it claws its way up a steep learning curve, it can hold on to the thought that the dizzyingly profitable BSkyB was once a laughing stock; that the strikingly commercial Channel 4 was condemned at birth as boring; that scepticism greeted the arrival of both ITV and BBC2. But, however traditional these birth pangs, there is a difference here.
Unprecedentedly in the history of broadcasting, it was the advertisers who parleyed Channel 5 into existence. They lobbied Mrs Thatcher's government for a bargaining chip they could take to the negotiating table when annually fixing the price of airtime with the ITV monopoly. The advertisers wanted Channel 5. Now they've got it. But as things stand, the last of the terrestrial channels still looks like the runt of the litter, uncertain if it can plug into the viewers it needs to satisfy its own creators.
Before its launch on Easter Sunday, the channel's chief executive David Elstein predicted that "the advertisers will give us six months to get it right". That six-month moratorium expires in a few weeks' time. In October the media buyers begin to meet with the television channels to thrash out how much they will have to pay for airtime in l998. "It's a crucial time for Channel 5," says Mark Patterson, managing director of BJK&E Media, one of the leading media buyers. "Big advertisers are making big decisions about very large budgets: how they are going to spend them and what proportion Channel 5 are going to get. Their time is running out in terms of getting investment for next year."
At the moment, the channel has the backing of several substantial advertisers who gave their support in exchange for preferential rates before the launch. "But they haven't got a really broad portfolio of advertisers, as the other channels have," says Patterson. "They've got revenue, but it's from fewer people. If your reliance is on fewer people and one of those pulls out, then you are on stickier ground." There's only one thing that encourages investment: audiences, preferably stuffed to the gills with ABC1s who actually respond to the advertisements between the programmes. For a cornucopia of reasons, that's one thing the channel is conspicuously short of at the moment. The business plan states its ultimate goal of annually averaging six per cent of the audience share. At the moment it is occasionally hitting three per cent; on one or two exceptionally good nights, when they screened Mrs Doubtfire, or the Poland-England World Cup football match, it has soared to the heights of 10 and 25 per cent respectively. There is fighting talk of hitting five per cent a couple of times before the year is out. But the final destination is a very distant summit. At a very basic level, 36 per cent of the potential audience still has no access to the channel. The programmes could be of BAFTA-winning quality and more than a third of the national audience would not be able to watch it.
ENDEMIC TO Channel 5's difficulties is The Problem of the Croydon Transmitter. Poor penetration is half expected, and quietly written off, in thinly populated areas of Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, mid-Wales, East Anglia and the Highlands, which are of nugatory interest to advertisers anyway. ("Get a dish," is the blunt advice to rural dwellers.) But the failure to deliver a decent signal to the south-east, and specifically to parts of London, has been disastrous. It is almost comically symbolic that the channel's Croydon transmitter cowers in the shadow of the brawnier Crystal Palace transmitter used by the big boys. "There's a whole chunk of south London," admits Elstein, "where the picture quality is poor because the main transmitters of ITV, BBC and C4 have got a signal shadow which obscures the C5 signal." It doesn't take too wild-eyed a conspiracy theorist to work out that the kicking Channel 5 has suffered in the media may have something to do with the fact that reception in the capital, where most of those toiling in the media live, has been of the winter-in-Lapland variety. Transmitters are being switched on the whole time in the pursuit of 80 per cent penetration. But unless things improve, Londoners will know where to find snow this Christmas: the 5 button on the remote control. And the press kicking will continue.
There is a new signal booster coming on the market this autumn that, plugged into television sets, will help stem the blizzard. But it will cost about pounds 20, a sum that discerning customers might be reluctant to part with in exchange for a clear view of some pretty fuzzy programming. Even with 100 per cent penetration, and perfect picture quality, Channel 5's next problem remains: how to persuade the viewer that it broadcasts anything worth watching. Because of the negative publicity generated by the whole retuning saga, the nation was predisposed to expect the worst. And when it came along, the programming did not substantially alter that view.
There's a simple test you can apply to programmes on Channel 5. If they were on another terrestrial channel, would they be getting a bigger audience? When Clive Anderson's chat show switched from Channel 4 to BBC1, for example, its ratings underwent a predictable surge. This is a relevant question because, says Mark Patterson, "they always say in our business that people watch programmes not channels, but I'm becoming less convinced about that these days. There's a badge value to media brands. Channel 4 has built up a very good badge value. You do get MTV viewers and Sky Sport viewers. You certainly don't get Channel 5 viewers. They haven't got an identity yet."
The channel was born three months later than expected, but still too early, with several of its programmes booked in for long runs but ill- equipped for the icy glare of public scrutiny. "Every single show was brand-new off the starting block," says Elstein. "With a number of shows you could see that they were going through their teething problems on air. Everything was being tried out simultaneously. You can't hide. You've got nothing guaranteed to work which can support the shows which are being tried out, because that wasn't the nature of the licence."
Before the launch, the director of programming, Dawn Airey, admitted that there was one utter dud in the schedule. In the end it was never broadcast, and it was subsequently flogged to another channel. This unidentified programme must have been very bad indeed if it was worse than the dismal game show Whittle. Or the medical quiz Tibs and Fibs. Or Exclusive, a daily dose of showbiz tittle-tattle filmed in a well-lit shoebox. Exclusive had only a week's worth of pilots - compared with the 100 test runs granted to the 5 News presented by Kirsty Young - before it went on air each weekday at 7pm. You could tell how desperate Exclusive was by the grins of reinforced steel on its presenters' faces. It was, unsurprisingly, the first thorn in Channel 5's crown to succumb to a makeover.
But there are one or two exceptions. Marcus Plantin, the outgoing head of ITV, clearly has a soft spot for Night Fever, a so-tacky-it's-terrific karaoke show hosted by Suggs, formerly of Madness. Night Fever is the only programme Plantin tried to poach. Unlike its stablemates, it is a celebration of its own cheapness. You can tell it's cheap because you've never heard of any of the celebrity guests, and the ones you have heard of turn out to be presenters who have been three-line-whipped on board from other Channel 5 programmes. Both Kirsty Young and Jack Docherty, the two most recognisable faces of Channel 5, have been approached about appearing on the show. And will they do it? "I think it's a very good show," says Young. "But not here, not now. Maybe another time." "I said no thank you," says Docherty. "I can't sing." Nancy Lam, the squawking siren of the wok, may yet get the call.
The Jack Docherty Show, however, would certainly fare better on another channel, and may yet end up on one. On Channel 4 or BBC2, say, viewers might be less inclined to criticise the quality of the guests. For advertisers, a good guest is one famous enough to pull in the viewers. For Docherty, a good guest makes the effort to entertain such viewers as have bothered to tune in. "Big guests are great and the ratings go up," he says. "The buzz in the theatre when you've got big guests is fantastic. But I've had as much fun interviewing Fish and Lord Bath as I've had interviewing some film stars or football players. If we get George Clooney, great, but there aren't 15 celebrities a week in America either. We fondly assume that on Leno and Letterman it's Demi Moore and Bruce Willis every night. It's not. They've got some comic who's doing quite well in a New York club. They've got some guy who's shot a video."
Docherty's other problem, apart from the perceived paucity of stars, is that the show's audience depends in part on the pulling-power of the nightly nine o'clock film that precedes it. But even the most seductive movie hasn't always delivered, because the chat show was "stripped" across the schedule at 11pm. If the film happened to finish earlier, viewers who might have stay tuned for Docherty were alienated by a spindly schedule- filler called Entertainment Update. The Jack Docherty Show has now been unstripped, blowing a sizeable hole in the marketing campaign that boasted of a "stripped and stranded" schedule, in order to inherit directly the movie audience. Unfortunately, the pre-launch promotional blitz which made so much of having a film at a fixed time each night soft-pedalled the quality that was on offer. "When Channel 5 won its licence in February '96," explains Elstein, "at that point it had relatively few movies under contract. By the time we went to air in March '97 we still had a rather thin list of available titles. But we had no choice but to brand, from as early as possible, one of our strengths in terms of our commerciality. The fact was that it would take time for that strength to become obvious, and there was nothing we could do."
Thanks to a deal struck with Warner Brothers, the titles will get stronger this autumn. But as subscribers to the Sky Movie Channel can testify, there are only so many good movies around. "Anybody who is going to put a movie on every night of the week," says Patterson, "is going to struggle."
YET THE future for Channel 5 is not unremittingly bleak. Reviewing its first week on BBC2's Late Review, Tony Parsons predicted that the other channels would soon be cherry-picking its brighter ideas. Kirsty Young's trouser-suited patrol of the news studio is one of several mannerisms that has been rapidly plagiarised. "We do something called the perch watch," says Young, "counting the newsreaders perching on desks here, there and everywhere. Given that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery I don't think we're too bothered." More concrete evidence that 5 News is doing something right came at the end of last month, when the 8.30 bulletin picked up more viewers than Channel 4 News for the first time. The next day, of course, it was back to normal. But, says Young, ''I think that we have to be confident that steadily our audience is growing. After only four months on air we are comparable with a programme that has been on air for 15 years."
Aside from films, Channel 5's best chance of making a lasting impact is with sport. After the ratings success of Poland v England, it has bought shrewdly into European football this autumn, and it is this area that is most likely to familiarise viewers with the 5 button. The common denominator of both football and films is that they are not made in-house. Channel 5 has yet to work out how to manufacture its own entertainment. "You've just got to be tolerant about our mistakes," says Elstein. "You tell us about them regularly enough. But everyone makes them first time round.''
But there remains a mountain to climb before the channel can alter perceptions among the advertisers. "In advertising terms," says Patterson, "it's a very small player and it gets disproportionate time and attention from the media. You can get bigger ratings and better-quality audiences on some of the major satellite channels. It's small scale. You can certainly live without it." !
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