A media malaise: is Five going down the tube?

A downbeat announcement by the company which owns Britain's newest terrestrial broadcaster has put a question mark over its future. Ciar Byrne investigates a channel in search of a meaningful audience
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The Independent Online

At last weekend's Edinburgh International Television Festival, Lisa Opie did not look like a woman in charge of a channel in crisis. In fact, eight months into her new role as Managing Director of Content at Five, she had the air of the cat that got the cream, purring enthusiastically about her new commissions and acquisitions.

But when Five's parent company RTL unveiled its half-year financial results yesterday, the prognosis for the network was not so rosy.

RTL announced that it had written down its UK television operations by £83.5m thanks to an "impairment of goodwill" - meaning that the value of Five has dropped since it was bought by the media group, a subsidiary of German media company Bertelsmann.

To some extent, this was inevitable. In common with other terrestrial channels, Five has seen its share of the audience slip as viewers are choosing between not only an ever-increasing number of digital channels, but also other distractions from mobile phones, music downloads and computer games, to online social networks.

In the first half of 2007, Five's share of the adult audience dropped to 5.5 per cent, from 6 per cent in 2006 - the worst performing of all the terrestrial channels.

RTL chief executive Gerhard Zeiler blamed the impairment on "the increasingly fragmented UK television market affecting all established broadcasters".

He added that Five's problems were "mainly due to strong competition in the UK television market, affecting all existing broadcasters".

Aside from the general downward viewing trend for terrestrial channels, however, there is a perception that Five, which has always struggled to make itself seen and heard in a crowded marketplace, has fallen even further off people's radar.

The channel's poor performance has already prompted a management shake-up - with Ms Opie being brought in as head of content.

It is a sign of the malaise at Five that the position of director of programmes lay vacant for several months after Dan Chambers, who had held the post, left the channel last autumn. Rumour has it that several television executives declined the job, until Five finally managed to poach Jay Hunt from the BBC, where she was controller of daytime and early peak.

Mr Zeiler admitted that he was disappointed by Five's performance, but said that was why RTL had made changes at the top of the television company.

"Am I happy the audience share went down? No - otherwise we wouldn't have changed the programme team," he said.

"The change is more radical, exactly what we expected. We have a new director of content, Lisa Opie, and we fully trust in her, that she will turn it around in terms of audience share. Our main goal is to grow our position."

When Five was launched a decade ago, the channel very quickly gained a reputation for the three F's - films, football and fucking. Since then, Five has come a long way, with some surprising gems. These include the early evening art show, Tim Marlow on..., and veteran journalist Brian Sewell's The Naked Pilgrim, in which he invited the viewer to join him on a pilgrimage from MontMartre in Paris to de Compostela and The Grand Tour, in which he retraced the route around Italy that was once trodden by the wealthy of the 18th and 19th centuries as an essential part of their education.

More recently, Paul Merton In China, was an unusual concept that won critical acclaim for Five, following the comedian as he rather grumpily travelled around China.

Five has also rivalled the other terrestrial broadcasters when it comes to overseas acquisitions of programmes. Earlier this year, it outbid the BBC for the cult Australian soap opera Neighbours, signing a deal worth £300m over 10 years.

Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) is the highest rating US acquisition on British screens, while other shows such as Law and Order, NCIS and House starring Hugh Laurie, also do well for the channel. It is on the back of the success of such acquisitions that Five launched its digital channel Five US in October 2006. There is a danger, however, that the network - or " family of channels" as it prefers to call itself - is gaining a reputation for acquiring foreign shows at the expense of commissioning high quality programmes of its own.

But even these acquisitions have not always proved plain sailing for Five, however. The channel recently lost the third series of Prison Break to Sky, although Mr Zeiler dismissed the loss, saying: "Prison Break was a hit critically, but ratings-wise it didn't do the job that we thought it would for us."

Joey, the Friends spin-off starring Matt Le Blanc for which the channel paid £450,000 per episode, also failed to attract anything like the audience of the hit Channel 4 sitcom.

Another major problem the channel has faced is scheduling, failing to establish appointment-to-view programmes and leaving viewers disorientated. Ms Opie admitted in her Edinburgh interview that: "In the past, our schedule has not been as consistent as it could be. It's quite difficult to navigate."

In June, the channel hit a low when it was fined £300,000 for breaching the broadcasting code in its premium-rate phone-in quiz Brainteaser. The fine - the largest financial penalty ever imposed on a terrestrial broadcaster by the watchdog - related to live episodes of the daytime quiz show at the start of the year, when fake names were announced as winners and staff posed as winners. It was the first and perhaps the worst example of a scandal that was soon to reach across the nation's television industry, affecting phone-in competitions on programmes from Richard and Judy's "You Say, We Pay", on Channel 4, to Blue Peter. Unlike Channel 4, however, which has cancelled all premium-rate phone-in competitions, Ms Opie insisted that Five would continue to air competitions.

"Brainteaser was extremely unfortunate. It's something that we very much regret. We put viewers at the heart of our schedule," she said.

While RTL claims that Five's digital channels have established themselves in the top-20 peak time channels, the reality is that Five Life, which subsists mainly on a diet of Home and Away, is one of the poorest performing digital channels.

Jessica Rogers, who writes about Five for the TV and radio industry bible Broadcast magazine, believes there is room for optimism.

"Things are looking up. Lisa Opie joined as managing director of content last year and she is starting to make her mark, although she hasn't managed to halt the channel's falling audience share yet. But it is difficult to turn a channel round overnight.

"Before she joined things had gone really stale. Five's budgets compared to the other terrestrial broadcasters are tiny. But Paul Merton in China did really well for them and Opie has said she would like to do more talent-led programmes like that.

"The next six to 12 months are make or break time for them."

Highlights of Five's autumn schedule include investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre in Street Crime Live and Californication starring David Duchovny as a self-destructive novelist.

But the schedule also features such luridly titled programmes as My Body Hell, exploring women's body issues, Sweaty Betty, looking at extreme sweating and Serial Brides, about women who prefer the ceremony to the marriage.

The television advertising market in the UK could also be looking up. Although UK television advertising revenues fell by 0.8 per cent overall in the first half of the year, revenue at Five rose by 8.5 per cent to £164m, thanks to increased advertising from the digital channels Five US and Five Life. And Mr Zeiler remains optimistic, predicting that advertising revenues in the UK will rise by between 1 and 2 per cent in the second half of the year.

One of the most crucial elements of Five's coming year will be the launch of Neighbours in early 2008. Ms Opie was coy at Edinburgh about where in the schedule it will be placed, but the rumour is that the channel is planning an "Australia hour", with Neighbours running alongside Home and Away, which is already one of Five's most popular programmes.

The BBC, which has aired the soap opera for 21 years, withdrew from the bidding, saying: "We would have loved to keep it, but not at any price."

Ms Opie insisted the huge price Five paid for the soap - which is owned by fellow RTL company Fremantle Media - was worth it, adding that Neighbours had just relaunched in Australia "with huge success".

But she admitted that she faces a dilemma between foreign and in particular US acquisitions, which are becoming ever more expensive, and commissioning homegrown shows.

This is an area where, with some notable exceptions, Five has not excelled, relying heavily on series such as Extraordinary People - a television version of the real-life stories proffered up in supermarket magazines.

"It's important that we become excellent and famous for commissioning great content over the next 12 months," Ms Opie said.

"We need to have a brand that people understand and recognise as being Five.

"It's our job to be a no bullshit, tell it like it is, down to earth, vibrant, young, frank, upfront channel that entertains reliably."

Channel's highs...

Paul Merton In China

In an unusual travelogue, Merton toured China. But rather than visiting the main tourist attractions à la Michael Palin, he encountered local people, such as young men rapping on the street. A surprise hit.

Tim Marlow On...

Through the eyes of art historian Tim Marlow, Five delivers some of the best coverage of the visual arts on British television. In the occasional series, Marlow visits exhibitions and explains them to viewers.

BRIAN SEWELL'S GRAND TOUR

Few expected Brian Sewell to pop up on Five, but the series he made were compelling. In Grand Tour, he retraced the route around Italy once trodden by the rich, while in The Naked Pilgrim he followed a pilgrimage route.

CSI

So popular is Five's US drama Crime Scene Investigation that it has spin-offs based in Miami and New York (the original is based in Las Vegas). The CBS show, which follows police as they investigate mysterious deaths and unusual crimes, regularly attracts nearly two million viewers to the channel.

House

The British comedian Hugh Laurie won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Drama and was nominated for an Emmy for his role in House. Five acquired the UK rights to NBC's medical drama, in which he stars as Dr Gregory House, an anti-social doctor specialising in infectious diseases.

... and lows

Brainteaser

In June, Five was ordered by Ofcom to pay £300,000, the largest fine ever imposed on a terrestrial broadcaster, after its daytime quiz show Brainteaser, made by Endemol, was shown to have faked the winners in a phone-in competition.

Family Affairs

In 2005, Five broadcast the final episode of Family Affairs, the soap opera it had broadcast since its launch in March 1997. Former director of programmes Dan Chambers said the drama had come "to the end of its natural lifespan".

The Farm

Who can forget the sight of Rebecca Loos masturbating a pig on Five's attempt at a reality TV show, The Farm? Viewers branded the scene "vile" and then Culture Secretary Chris Smith reminded Five's bosses of their " moral duty to take account of the views of the public".

Joey

Five had high hopes for Friends spin-off Joey, starring Matt Le Blanc for which it paid £450,000 per episode. Its debut on the channel attracted an impressive audience of 4 million, but by the second outing, viewing figures had dropped to 2.9million. These days, the comedy still struggles on with an audience of 600-700,000.

Prison Break

Sky One poached the critically acclaimed US drama in June. It had been one of Five's biggest hits, attracting two million viewers, but chiefs dismissed the loss, saying that ratings were declining.

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