Channel 5 retuning deficient say rivals

ITV survey raises doubts about national plans, reports Mathew Horsman
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Channel 5's plans to retune millions of televisions and video recorders are inadequate and underfinanced, a report commissioned by the new channel's bitter rivals, the ITV companies, will claim today.

According to a survey commissioned by the ITV Association, involving telephone interviews with 700 people in Channel 5's pilot retuning area in Surrey, fewer than 60 per cent of households were contacted by the retuning teams, and less than 50 per cent were successfully retuned.

The survey results, if accurate, will place a major question mark over Channel 5's massive national retuning project, which is scheduled to be launched on Monday. Millions of homes are scheduled to be visited during the exercise, which is aimed at retuning 90 per cent of all domestic VCRs capable of receiving the new terrestrial service by early 1997.

The project is the biggest door-to-door effort since the conversion to North Sea gas more than two decades ago.

Channel 5's chief executive, Ian Ritchie, said last night that the channel "rejected ITV's attempt to undermine the Channel 5 pilot retuning exercise. We have seen nothing which shakes our confidence that we can meet our objectives and be on air by January 1997."

A spokesman for Pearson Television, one of the channel's backers, added: "The fact that ITV would go to such length at this stage suggests they are already running scared."

Privately, Channel 5 sources are bemused that ITV, which stands to lose the most if the new terrestrial service poaches viewers and advertising revenues from existing commercial channels, would mount such a campaign during the pilot project.

Channel 5 understands that several people in the pilot area complained to the police after being contacted by the independent research firm, which allegedly asked questions such as: "Is there a man in the house?" as part of the survey.

The ITV research is only the first shot in what is likely to be a brutal war between Channel 5 and its rivals among the ITV companies, many of which were members of consortia that failed to win the Channel 5 licence, awarded to Pearson Television and United News & Media in October. Many industry leaders expect a "dirty tricks" campaign of disinformation, press leaks, claims and counter-claims as the national retuning project is rolled out in late summer.

The retuning exercise, budgeted at pounds 55m, is the most crucial stage in the launch of Britain's last "free" television channel. The Independent Television Commission has insisted that 90 per cent of viewers capable of receiving the signal be retuned before the service is switched on. Any delay could jeopardise the channel's financial viability.

Channel 5 has already secured the help of Granada and Thorn-EMI, owners of the two leading rental chains in the country. The companies will retune their equipment on hire in British homes. In addition, Channel 5 is negotiating with cable television companies, which may handle the retuning of their customers' VCRs.