Television's great defender swings into attack mode

Channel 5's new chief has had an extraordinary week, reports Mathew Horsman
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The Independent Online
Barely a week into his new job as chief executive of Channel 5 Broadcasting, David Elstein has already delivered 4 million more potential viewers to Britain's last "free" television service; charmed regulators into agreeing to a six-week delay in the channel's new year launch; and inaugurated detailed negotiations with his former company, Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB, about a 10-year satellite distribution and joint marketing deal.

He has even found time to help BSkyB sew up a few programming deals left over from his days as Sky's head of programmes. "Maybe I should charge [BSkyB chief] Sam Chisholm a consultancy fee," he joked.

The pace has been extraordinary - as quick, indeed, as Mr Elstein's sudden move from BSkyB to Channel 5 Broadcasting, announced just three weeks ago.

Interviewed at C5B's Covent Garden offices yesterday, Mr Elstein was in a positively buoyant mood. Although he wouldn't say it, he must feel a sense of liberation: the head of a mainstream television channel at last, and no longer third or fourth fiddle at Sky, stuck in a sad London suburb.

But Mr Elstein is the first to admit how useful his three-and-a-half years at Murdoch's television giant have been (not to mention lucrative: he declines to confirm suggestions he left with pounds 500,000 in stock option profits). Nominally head of programmes, he was far more often thrust forward as the "acceptable face" of Sky, asked to justify the company's stranglehold on pay-TV, its fractious relationships with cable operators, its dominance of sport and film programming. His profile soared as he penned articles, spoke at conferences and racked up the radio interviews.

Mr Chisholm calls him one of the best advocates in the business. Another senior broadcasting source said: "David can defend virtually any position. His intellectual capabilities are not exactly for sale, but they can certainly be put to a huge variety of uses."

And so it has already proven at Channel 5. A meeting with the Department of Trade and Industry's Ian Taylor last Thursday, even before Mr Elstein formally took up the new job, convinced the Government to give the company an extra frequency, Channel 35, boosting the coverage to about 80 per cent of all households.

"I can't take all the credit," Mr Elstein, 51, said. "I saw an unexplored avenue and made a proposal." Why not award the frequency for just a limited period, he suggested, and take it away again when the services for which Channel 35 had been reserved - digital mobile television - are available? That, and some clever lobbying of MPs in constituencies where the Channel 5 signal would be enhanced by the award of an additional frequency, was enough to turn the trick.

It was vintage Elstein: a matter of smooth talk, elegant thought and a persuasive, intelligent manner. Born into a North London Jewish family, Mr Elstein has been highly regarded throughout a broadcasting career that took him from the BBC at age 17 to independent production to a stint as head of programming at Thames Television.

Channel 5's owners, Pearson, Lord Hollick's United News & Media and Luxembourg- based CLT, were delighted with the successful frequency campaign. They will have reason to be even more pleased if Mr Elstein pulls off his next project, the co-operation deal with Sky. If all goes according to plan, Channel 5 will secure an analogue transponder, at a likely cost of pounds 6m a year, to add even more potential viewers. Mr Elstein says he wants a "package deal" including the transponder, a place in BSkyB's digital satellite lineup, joint programme acquisition and commissioning and cross-promotion of BSkyB's channels and the new Channel 5 schedule.

The arrangement owes a great deal to Mr Elstein's Sky past, and to the hard work he put in over BSkyB's own bid for Channel 5. All along, BSkyB, with partners Granada and PolyGram, had intended to use the launch of the new channel as a means of selling satellite dishes and marketing even more UK homes. Having hopped the fence, Mr Elstein is busy reviving all those plans.

"It isn't rocket science to see how both companies benefit," he said. "Sky will see Channel 5 as a marketing tool to target another 3 or 4 million homes. We will be able to extend our coverage and buy programmes at a lower cost." Sport, where BSkyB excels, is an obvious area of co-operation, he said.

But Channel 5 is still a long way from home and dry. The retuning of 12 million homes, at a cost of pounds 120m, to enable viewers to receive the signal will be "a long, hard slog," Mr Elstein conceded.

"You need to have so many things in place: an excellent data control system, recruitment and training. We need to insure against accidents, roguery [for example, burglaries by retuners]."

But Mr Elstein is supremely, serenely confident. And why not? He clearly has started as he means to carry on.