Happy birthday Channel 5. Let me help you blow the candles out. Born on March 31st (April 1st might have been more apt), I've been there every day of your young life. I was there when you paid that money to the Spice Girls to wet the baby's head. When Kirsty took her first steps across the studio floor, and when Xena brought the dominatrix out of the bedroom and into the living room.
Like your near contemporaries, Tony Blair's Labour government, you promised us nothing - and we weren't disappointed. All you would tell us was that you were going to be "modern and mainstream". And you gave us Kirsty. To give her her due, she's good in an eery sort of way - a chip off the old Anna Ford/Selina Scott ice maiden/sex goddess block. As for her much vaunted "naturalness" in front of the camera, the most telling thing she ever said was her admission that she goes "into a semi-yogic trance if things start to go wrong". In the chaotic venue of a news studio, Kirsty must be at one with the universe.
And Jack Docherty? It's the viewers, alas, who drop into a semi-yogic trance. When are British commissioning editors going to give up trying to replicate the Johnny Carson/David Letterman chat show format? It's now over ten years since Jonathan Ross's The Last Resort, and the TV schedules are littered with the corpses of those who have tried to follow. At least Danny Baker wasn't on three times a week.
But it's not Jack's fault if he's miscast, and at least he's having the honesty to quit - leaving because he's fed up with interviewing "nobodies" (it takes one to know one). Melinda Messenger recently stood in for him and she was rather good. Well, at least she seemed interested in the "nobodies" paraded before her.
The Melinda Messenger Show would neatly dovetail with something else Channel 5 - owned by Pearson, United News & Media, German media group CLT-UFA and investment bank EM Warburg - has never been shy of exploiting - sex. This is the first terrestrial channel to give an airing to those dreadful soft porn movies from the early Seventies. And a channel not noted for its documentary output put out two "major" documentaries last week. One about topless Page Three models, the other about a team of male strippers from Sheffield.
One of Channel 5's minor successes (given their ratings, all Channel 5's successes are minor) has been their daily 9pm movie strand - an achievement that has prompted ITV into renewing its call for News at Ten to moved back to become News at Eleven.
However, you wouldn't cross the street to the video shop for many of C5's movies. The BBC and Channel 4 at least give you the sense there is a guiding intelligence behind movie purchasing policy. Trying to make sense of Channel 5's movie scheduling, one simply gets the feeling that a blindfold, a pin and the bottom of a barrel are the only prerequisites.
What they are missing - and what 5 News or Jack Docherty can't give them - is a "must see" show. For most channels this means a soap. Family Affairs is actually not bad, and more articulate than most: it is recognisably set in amidst loosely-knit modern relationships instead of a long-dead working class communities so fondly recreated by Coronation Street and EastEnders. But what Eldorado and every attempt to launch a new soap since has proved, is that British television has reached suds saturation point. And if people aren't talking about a soap in the workplace the next day, it might as well not exist. Sorry, Angus, Duncan, Holly, Elsa et al. Maybe they'll take you to their hearts in Iceland or Uzbekistan. You deserve to be cherished.
As for C5's American and Australian soaps (Sunset Beach, The Bold and The Beautiful, Sons and Daughters), these are almost halucinatory in their awfulness - so bad, in fact, that they are almost fun. Sunset Beach is probably the best fun you can have without taking a pill, but like ecstasy, prolonged casual use is not advised.
We now realise what the benevolent dictatorship of restricted choice has been protecting us from - the vast hinterland of truly awful US television. We've been lapping up the cream all these years with shows like Friends, X Files, LA Law, NYPD Blue - even Dallas and Dynasty - and only now do we realise it. Sky may import more things American than the Allies on the eve of D-Day, but Channel 5 makes Rupert Murdoch seem almost Reithian in the quality of its US purchases.
And the home-grown "talent" isn't much better. The ruthless Darwinian nature of traditional four-channel terrestrial TV stands revealed by the names disinterred by Channel 5. Russell Grant, John Leslie, Annabelle Giles? No, you haven't accidentally blipped on to UK Gold. Channel 5, the mad fools, have come to the rescue with the oxygen of publicity. Sometimes it's just kinder to let nature take its course.
I realise that when ITV launched in the 1950s they were met with a barrage of criticism not dissimilar to this, which seems reactionary now - especially after the fabulously inventive Lew Grade years. If Channel 5 can throw up another Grade, then all well and good, but the omens aren't there. A home-grown series like The Avengers, The Prisoner or The Saint takes verve, money and imagination - not much of which has characterised C5 so far. Instead we get a mouth-watering repeat from ITV's glory years - The Sweeney. Far and away the best drama on Channel 5 is over 20 years old.
Since ITV, we've seen the launches of BBC2 and Channel 4, undoubtedly two of the most intelligent and challenging TV stations in the globe. In the Blairite 1990s, Channel 5 presents itself as "modern and mainstream". Meaningless Mandelson speak? Let me translate.
For mainstream, read endlessly formulaic and imitative. Until Jerry Sadowitz popped up three weeks ago, there's wasn't an innovative bone in its scheduling - unless you include Russell Grant feng-shuing people's homes.
Gardening, general knowledge quizzes, wildlife shows (but, strangely, no sitcoms) and of course - that huge growth area of 1990s television - the comedy panel game show a la Have I Got News for You, They Think It's All Over etc. Reductio ad absurdum. Very cheap, very easy, very Channel 5.
The programmers seem to want a pat on the back for putting together a plausible television station for a fraction of the cost of their terrestrial rivals. Much is made in the media press about "the David versus Goliath" nature of Channel 5's programming budgets (pounds 112 million compared to ITV's pounds 800 million). A "David versus Goliath contest" assumes you're rooting for David - but why should the viewer give two hoots
for a commercial TV channel whose bottom line is its bottom line? Their programming budget is a question for Channel 5's shareholders. All the viewer cares about is what is being put on the screen.
It may all soon be irrelevant, anyhow, what with the digital TV revolution just around the corner - like carping about the design of the latest steam engine just as Daimler-Benz were putting the finishing touches to their first motor car.
Meanwhile, the media buying industry - the people who book the ads and keep C5 afloat - continue to be happy with the channel. Advertising revenue is pounds 3 million above target and is expected to grow a further 50 per cent. But for the average viewer it's at best a cheerful irrelevance - at worst a snowstorm on their un-retuned VCR.
We didn't ask for it and now we know we don't need it. One year on, and the most they can boast about is discovering a new newsreader. Happy birthday, Channel 5. See you on News at Eleven, Kirsty.
Gerard Gilbert writes the daily TV listings and previews in this paper.Reuse content