C5 makes slow work of retuning videos

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The Independent Online
A set of mixed signals from its pilot retuning project is expected to lead Channel 5 to revise its cost estimates upwards when it unveils its plans to retune the nation's video recorders tomorrow.

The pilot retuning programme, involving 10,000 homes in Wallington, Surrey, has been hampered by difficulties since it began in early June. The 22 retuning engineers assigned to do the home visits were forced to reexamine their procedures after just two weeks, when it emerged that they were unable to meet initial targets for successful visits.

C5's plans, to be announced tomorrow by chief executive Ian Ritchie, will outline a schedule for the retuning exercise, which must be completed by the time the channel goes on air in January. It is also expected to include an admission that the channel's initial estimates of how many homes it could retune in a given time using the 6,000 engineers it intends to hire for the project were overly optimistic.

The cost of the exercise, which will be borne by Pearson and United News and Media, C5's two main shareholders, is therefore expected to be higher than the pounds 55m the channel initially estimated. Canwest and Granada, two unsuccessful bidders for the fifth terrestrial channel franchise, estimated the cost of retuning at pounds 70m and pounds 130m respectively.

Mr Ritchie is also expected to hit back at what C5 sees as a concerted effort by the ITV companies' to damage its prospects before it gets on air. Last week, an ITV Association telephone survey of C5's pilot retuning area found that retuning engineers had only gained access to 61 per cent of homes in the target area, and fewer than half had had their videos successfully retuned.

However it is unlikely that Mr Ritchie will be able to announce a deal with the cable operators to do some of the retuning on C5's behalf. Discussions are "at an advanced stage" according to sources close the negotiations, but the two sides are understood to be still far apart on price.

C5 must satisfy the Independent Television Commission that 90 per cent of viewers in its broadcast area can receive the channel clearly. This will mean sending engineers to check reception quality in the 10 million homes covered by its broadcast area and, if necessary, retuning viewers' video recorders by hand.