Television: What is Channel 5?

Arts: A new terrestrial TV station is a good thing. If it knows what it's going to be broadcasting, that is. Cole Moreton investigates
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The Independent Culture
The Retuners are coming. Any day now, someone in a uniform will turn up on your doorstep, asking to be let in. They will be part of a vast army, recruited to help bring about changes to British society on a scale unheard of for more than a decade. Without their adjustments, you are warned that you will "experience interference".

Some people will not notice this cultural revolution, because the philistines do not have a television set. But most of us can see the writing on the wall. On lots of walls, actually: on billboards all around the country, where brightly coloured posters striped like test cards carry the cryptic legend "give me 5". The words are in lower case. Very trendy. Very knowing. Two circles surround the figure five, just like on the countdown before the start of old films.

These posters were designed to establish a brand image for Channel 5, a new television station due to go on air early next year. It will be the fifth terrestrial station, free to all, and the first to launch since Channel 4, 12 years ago. The ad campaign tells us nothing about the sort of programmes we can expect, and its mystery is intentional. A few names and faces have been leaked or announced, but on the whole, Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd is keeping its plans secret.

According to a letter it is sending to all our homes, this is because the TV industry is "very competitive". Another reason might be that many of the programmes have not yet been made, or even finalised. There were detailed ideas in the application that won C5B the franchise last October, but these seem to have been the subject of a radical rethink. We may never get to see Jericho Lane, a drama about trainee police officers, or Days of Justice, a show in which the audience at home acts as a jury. Neither can we expect Channel 5 to keep to its original proposal to broadcast dusty old favourites like Man About the House and Van Der Valk. Mention of these last two shows drew gasps of horror last week from Sally Osman, head of corporate and public relations at the station. "Where did you get that idea from?" she asked, seemingly oblivious to Channel 5's application document. Only a month earlier, the station's chief executive had been quoted as saying that old episodes of Minder would be shown, along with Dallas. Ms Osman says they won't.

Instead the station will be bright, vibrant, mainstream and modern, she said. It will be all about "attitude, a state of mind, lifestyle choices". A press pack sent out by her office promised that Channel 5 will be "articulate, accessible, bright, sexy, energetic, stylish"; fine words for a lonely hearts column, but less obviously applicable to a television station.

Some things are known, however. Channel 5 will broadcast 24 hours a day, with news on the hour. In the news team will be Sarah Smith, daughter of the late Labour leader John Smith, and Scottish TV's news anchor and chat-show host, Kirsty Young. Programming will be "stripped and stranded", so that types of show will become identified with certain times of the day. For example, movies will be shown every weekday night at 9pm, without interruption by the news. For five evenings a week there will also be a new soap opera, made by Grundy, the Australian company responsible for Neighbours.

There will be other drama, but Channel 5 will be working with an overall programming budget of pounds 110m, compared to pounds 700m at the BBC. One film in development is Beyond Fear, based on the book of the same name by the estate agent and kidnap victim Stephanie Slater. Sylvester McCoy will play her captor Michael Sams.

Mary Nightingale, who hosts London Tonight and Central TV's Crime Stalkers, has been hired to front Exclusive, a 30-minute entertainment-news magazine that will run five nights a week and be repeated in an omnibus edition at the weekend. Imported shows will include episodes of Beverley Hills 90210 that have only been seen in this country on satellite TV. Even if some of the more specific parts of the application do not come to fruition, it seems safe to assume that there will still be children's programmes, religious and arts shows on a Sunday, minority sports shown through the night, and continuity presenters you can see, rather than the disembodied voices currently used by the other terrestrial stations.

So who will watch it? Industry insiders say Channel 5 has targeted those under 40 who are bored with existing stations. Committed by its licence to providing a mainstream service, it needs 5 per cent of the total viewing public - or a million homes - to be a success. The plan is to be most attractive when others are weak, for example in the afternoon and after 10pm. Other commercial stations are already worried about the potential loss of advertising revenue. "Just because Channel 5 has a budget an eighth the size of ITV's doesn't mean to say it won't be able to produce quality," says Christine Smith of the magazine Broadcast. "There will be a battle for ratings with the other stations which should produce better programming all round."

Overall the station has announced its intent to resist "the glumming of Britain" by making "programmes about success more than about failure". Behind this relentlessly positive approach is a board of directors that includes Greg Dyke - the man who revamped an ailing TV-am by introducing Roland Rat - and Lord Hollick, the Labour peer. Last month, the station appointed a new chief executive, David Elstein, who had been head of programming at BSkyB (his credits include bringing The X-Files and Murder One to Britain).

Elstein's feet were barely under his desk when the Government announced that it would let Channel 5 use an extra frequency, increasing its coverage to just over 80 per cent of the population. That has meant putting the launch date back from 1 January by six weeks, so that more homes can have their video recorders adjusted by retuners. Despite its impressive new technology, however, Channel 5 will not be available to more than 10 million of us who live in more remote areas, like much of Wales. For those people the only hope of a brighter future is in the Sky. !