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Media: Analysis - A touch of gold from Fools and Horses

IN THE beginning was The Colditz Story, and frankly it wasn't much good at all. But six years ago this tale of studio-bound wartime resistance was a highlight on the cable and satellite channel UK Gold.

UK Gold was supposed to be a highlights channel, giving viewers another chance to savour the BBC's and Thames Television's finest hours. But the reality was rather different. UK Gold was limited by an agreement with the BBC to show nothing fresher than two years old, and a budget that seemed to let it buy almost nothing newer than 22 years old.

"Calling it UK Gold was considerably stretching a point," agrees Ian Lewis, head of programme evaluation at Zenith Media, the UK's largest media buying agency. "It wasn't above the UK Copper level.

But no more. These days UK Gold is on a roll, it seems. Confirmation of this comes from the Christmas viewing figures.

Christmas is a time when TV viewers traditionally turn away from the arriviste cable and satellite channels for a homely, tried-and-tested diet of Christmas specials and Pick of the Year shows.

However, last year during Christmas week the terrestrial channels registered a 2 per cent decline in viewing figures, while the whole of satellite and cable fell by 5 per cent. UK Gold, on the other hand, saw its Christmas week ratings rise by over 20 per cent. In fact a total of 6.5 million adults watched the station over the week.

The numbers are improving from a still-small base, of course - the top- rated show the channel has ever shown attracted just over half a million viewers. However, there is no doubt that this initially much-mocked station is now finding an audience.

More important is the fact that UK Gold is now the leading light in the BBC and Flextech joint venture UKTV, in the vanguard of the Beeb's ambitious passage into a new world of commercial satellite and digital television. It is, in fact, already the second most popular channel of all those available on cable and satellite, ahead of the sports and movie channels, ahead of the children's channels and behind only Sky One in terms of audience numbers. In addition its audience is among the most affluent of satellite TV viewers, something that has helped push up the station's advertising revenue by 25 per cent over the past 12 months.

"The biggest change happened last year, so that we have now got access to all BBC programmes, where before we had to wait two years after transmission," says UKTV's chief executive officer Dick Emery. "And, though the newer they are the more they cost us, it has meant that we can now show great programmes such as Only Fools and Horses and Men Behaving Badly."

In fact, so up-to-the-minute have UK Gold's offerings become that UKTV has paid it another compliment by launching a station called UK Gold Classics on digital satellite. This, as the name suggests, of course, is the rerun service for programming that has already been aired on UK Gold itself.

"We are now starting to think of ourselves as the sixth network," adds Emery. "We even launched a big advertising campaign before Christmas, and still only make a tiny operating profit, as we're pushing back revenues into better and better programmes."

For once viewers and advertisers seem to agree with the hype. "It's hard not say that the BBC has finally got it right with UK Gold," agrees Paul van Barthold, a director of the Media Business advertising group. "If you didn't think there was a place for a quality repeats channel in the multi-channel environment, just consider this. On the Electronic Programme Guide that viewers use to pick between their 200 digital channels on Sky Digital, UK Gold is one of the choices listed on the very front page, along with BBC1 and ITV and the other major players."