not bothering to adjust her set
If a stripy envelope, junk mail so brightly coloured that it shrieks, hits your doormat this week - don't throw it away unread. It is a message to 10 million households from Britain's newest television channel, which will go on air in January if the company can re-tune some 5 million video recorders that might otherwise be distorted by the Channel 5 signal.

The new station, led by Greg Dyke, the TV-am executive who won fame (or notoriety) by launching Roland Rat on an unsuspecting morning audience, must overcome this hideously expensive hurdle - pounds 70m and rising - by the end of December if we are to enjoy our new station.

But what will Channel 5 bring, and why is it here? As he celebrated victory in the auction for the airwaves, Mr Dyke was quoted as saying that: "We will produce some innovative stuff, which we hope will be offensive. I believe that part of the broadcasters' role is to push back boundaries.''

Lord Hollick, the Labour media magnate and another part-owner, portrayed Channel 5 more as Therapy TV. "There is room for a new national channel that has a combination of general entertainment and factual programming, which is not bossy, but helps people cope with life.''

Money is, of course, the driving force behind the creation of Channel 5. Advertisers, whose demand for airtime far outstrips the minutes available on ITV and Channel 4, lobbied for the new channel, while the Government saw the cash potential of a fifth channel in licence fees (C5 paid more than pounds 22m) and tax revenues.

So in 1991, the Independent Television Commission offered the licence. There was only one bidder and it was rejected. The ITC tried again in 1994, and eventually awarded the licence to Channel 5 Broadcasting, a consortium including Pearson plc (owners of the Financial Times, Thames TV and Grundy Worldwide, makers of Neighbours and The Bill) and United News and Media plc (the Express newspapers, Anglia and Meridian, share- holders in ITN).

Channel 5 has two big problems: first, its programming budget, at pounds 110m a year, is dwarfed by those of BBC1 and ITV; Channel 4 and BBC 2 will spend almost three times as much as the young pretender. Second, its owners must re-tune at least 90 per cent of video recorders affected by the signal, which will cover 74 per cent of homes in Britain.

The station is to broadcast on channel 37 - the only free spot on the spectrum that covers most of Britain and, as such, the spot chosen by video manufacturers to beam their signals.

This means that householders living in certain areas (you should have been warned by post) will find the new signal blurring Hollywood blockbusters or art-house flicks unless they accept Channel 5's free re-tuning offer. A bit annoying, perhaps, though Channel 5 promises appointments through a free phone number if the technicians call while you are out. Hence the stripey envelope and pamphlet inside that exhorts you to open the door to the re-tuners with a cry of "give me five".

Do as they say - or risk your video nights - though you won't know what you are getting till January. Programme schedules are still firmly under wraps; your leaflet points out that "the TV industry is very competitive", but it promises "innovation in entertainment, drama, news and current affairs, sports, leisure and lifestyle, films and children's programming".

The stuff of present schedules, you might think, but C5's mission statement promises "a popular, modern, mainstream, intelligent 24-hour broadcaster" and "a real alternative to the other four terrestrial broadcasters". The most visible break with telly tradition lies in the station's plan to "strip" and stream programmes, so that all will start on the hour or the half-hour; each genre will fill the same time slot each day. The idea is that new viewers should be able to find their way around the schedule quickly and easily.

Campaign magazine has produced the scheduling format that Channel 5 executives say is fairly accurate: cartoons and children's programmes at breakfast and tea-time; lifestyle and consumer shows in the morning; news highlights on the hour; magazine shows in the afternoon; an early evening soap opera to compete with regional news programmes; the evening news before 9pm; a movie slot run against the Nine O'Clock News and News at Ten; talk-shows and comedy from 10.30pm onwards; with "extreme" sport and games live from the US into the early hours.

Media pundits are divided on our need (or not) for Channel 5. Maggie Brown, who writes on the industry, is keen. "I'm in favour of Channel 5, I'm in favour of more choice, it's free, and it's got a very good programme director in Dawn Airey [formerly with Channel 4],'' she said. "The trick is to commission long-running series so that the cost comes down.'' Ms Brown points out that there are many strong independent programme-makers looking for work, and says Channel 5 is using companies with strong track- records.

Other analysts feel that, with the advent in 1998 of terrestrial digital television and the proliferation of satellite and cable channels, the new broadcaster is offering ITV lite, albeit for free. The competition - notably the ITV companies who will undoubtedly lose some audience share and their grip on the advertisers - veer between contempt and loathing.

Media pundits are divided on our need (or not) for Channel 5.

"What is irritating is that they will probably not add greatly to the gaiety of nations and will make a small profit and damage everyone else,'' said one ITV executive. "Inevitably they're going to take a few per cent from the audience.'' However, as he says, the channel is unlikely to attract extra viewers, "all it means is the cake is going to be distributed among more people''.

Thus, he argues, the ITV companies will be forced to make cuts, perhaps affecting programme quality and prompting a downward spiral. However, while complaining of the competition for ad revenue, ITV types simultaneously assault Channel 5 for its inability to compete. Cracker, for example, cost pounds 800,000 an hour to make, said another senior ITV source. "Six or seven episodes of that could use up 5 per cent of the [Channel 5] programming budget,'' he added. So the newcomer is castigated first for a determination to seize ground from ITV and then for a pitiful arsenal with which to attack.

Channel 5 staff are bullish but vague: "We believe there is a gap in the market for a channel that sits alongside the other four,'' Sally Osman, head of publicity, said. "People's attitudes, and the way they view have changed significantly [since the introduction of Channel 4 in 1992].''

Scorn is routinely poured on new televisual arrivals - think of Channel 4, which has soared to extraordinary heights, or TV-am, which did tremendously well until it was shot down at the franchise auction which, to Margaret Thatcher's horror, TV-am lost.

Neil Blackley, media analyst at Goldman Sachs, expects the newcomer to follow the same pattern. "You're going to get a lot of people being very pessimistic in the early stages,'' he said, but Channel 5 will learn from mistakes and then, "it will turn into, we believe a success story''.

If we are keen on talking wallpaper, on television as easy entertainment, we can only welcome Channel 5. And it should help to mop up all those hopeful media graduates eager to work in TV. But do we need it in the way that we need the two main channels, as cultural glue that unites the nation, or the two minority stations as thoughtful and interesting windows into the unknown? Probably not.

What do you think?

Do you need Channel 5? Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Channel 5, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171-293 2182 no later than Friday morning, and we will print the best comments on a need-to-know basis.

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