Call me low-brow, I love it

Dawn Airey hits back at critics who say she's pushing a diet of trash at Channel 5. If she had the BBC's budget, she says, she could teach them a thing or two about improving ratings
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The Independent Online

I am in the commercial broadcast business. Channel 5 is there to make money for shareholders, to return value on their investment and to ensure the company they invested in is highly capitalised. I am not bound by Reithian aspirations. I am not a traditional public service broadcaster and I certainly am not about aiming above people's heads - a little lower is more my style.

I am in the commercial broadcast business. Channel 5 is there to make money for shareholders, to return value on their investment and to ensure the company they invested in is highly capitalised. I am not bound by Reithian aspirations. I am not a traditional public service broadcaster and I certainly am not about aiming above people's heads - a little lower is more my style.

I am immensely proud of what we've created at Channel 5. Some of our originations - and many of our acquisitions - would sit very comfortably on BBC1. Night Fever, House Doctor, It's A Knockout, Fort Boyard, Hot Property, Family Confidential - they are all high-quality productions which would rate well and complement the overall standing and balance of any schedule.

Our news coverage has forced everyone else to revamp their own presentation and, according to which newspaper you read, Kirsty Young is leaving us to present almost everything from the Six O'Clock News to Match Of The Day. I'd like to take this opportunity to exclusively reveal that Kirsty definitely won't be replacing Trevor MacDonald on Tonight, despite her up and coming appearance in Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes. She has told me she is not ready to go into Light Entertainment full time.

We are already the most efficient broadcaster, expressed as money spent to generate share points. It costs Peter Salmon [BBC1's controller] around £27m for each single point of his total viewing share and David Liddiment [ITV's director of programmes] around £25m for his. I can do the same for less than £22m. And don't worry, guys, because expressed in those terms, we're all light years more efficient than Channel 4, with their humping horses and spot-the-prick competitions.

But I would be lying, though, if I didn't say that I'd welcome the opportunity to showcase the best of Channel 5 on a bigger stage.

It is easy as a commercial business to know the return of every programme and to assess its value. But how does the BBC know if it is good value or not? BBC has on occasion pursued football rights that could have been on Channel 5. They pay substantially more than we value matches at. The BBC play them on BBC2 and they deliver three million viewers - does this represent value?

As an organisation with a £1.75bn guaranteed income, it needs to sort itself out quickly before the Government or, God forbid, the licence-payer imposes a definition of value. So Peter [Salmon] struggles to know if he has succeeded or not.

The fact is that BBC1 at the moment is failing to deliver the high-audience quality popular drama and comedy that the licence-payer is entitled to expect. Look at Monday nights. The Nine O'Clock News, Burgled, Panorama, Omnibus. Not a story or a chuckle in sight. And how is it that Channel 5 can acquire football rights - yet it appears beyond the wit of the BBC?

Don't get me wrong, I would hate to work at the BBC because it strikes me that the controller of BBC1 has a title that breaches the Trades Description Act because he does not really control. News, current affairs, sports are separate fiefdoms, with separate budgets, some with access to discrete parts of the schedule. Furthermore, the controller of BBC1 is not on key BBC committees such as the executive committee and the board of management. He is not in charge of the allocation of his budget. At Channel 5 you cannot shirk responsibility. As director of programmes I am a member of the board, sit on the programme finance committee and approve every programme deal, and the scheduling of every show. Nothing else should be acceptable for Peter.

So what would I do to the Channel 5 schedule, if I had serious money to spend? I'd love to pinch The Bill for starters. I'd show as much good- quality football as I could lay my hands on - be it international football, club football or European competitions.

I would put serious money towards developing a really gritty soap. It's no secret that a soap should define the station, in the way that EastEnders, Brookside and Coronation Street do. Family Affairs [Channel 5's daily soap] isn't there yet and I would love to be able to invest in it heavily, to force it into the public consciousness.

With sufficient funding, I would also love to extend the soap into a second, late-night edition. Imagine how EastEnders would have been even more dramatic recently if we'd been able to stay up late and see what Bianca and Dan and Ricky and Carol had really got up to. And as for Barbara Windsor and Mike Reid - well, maybe it is not such a great idea after all.

If you believe everything you read, sex is a topic with which I am heartily obsessed, although it accounts for rather less than 2 per cent of the channel's output.

Channel 5 was always going to show uncut, adult material in a late-night time-slot. It was in the original licence application and, when that was written, I was still gainfully employed by Channel 4. So don't accuse me of dreaming up the idea. In fact, if you're looking for a key member of that successful Channel 5 bid team, you could do worse than cast a glance towards the new recruit arriving at Portland Place in a few weeks' time.

The article above is taken from a speech Dawn Airey made at a Royal Television Society meeting last week.

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