Jane Lighting: 'We're a grown-up channel now'

Once mocked for its late-night porn, Five has crept upmarket. And the next big challenge, Jane Lighting tells Ian Burrell, is multi-channel broadcasting

In her own estimation, Jane Lighting, the chief executive of Five, is "a very keen and an absolutely useless painter". And yet the head of a channel once known for its poor-quality reception and its output of late-night porn is trying to carve out a niche for herself as an unlikely champion of the arts.

"I do watercolours, how did you guess?" she says. "I've done the evening-class thing but I've never done the proper painting holiday, although I've often toyed with the idea of going to the Dordogne."

To say that Lighting has replaced Five's sex and sleaze with a new diet of Seurat and sculpture would misrepresent her repositioning of Britain's youngest television channel. "Populist" is still Five's watchword.

Nevertheless, she is so emboldened by her network's recent record in showing highbrow content that she feels able to chide the BBC for banishing much of its arts coverage from terrestrial television.

"For us it's not about making cliquey arts programmes, it's about how can we bring arts into an open environment," she says. "It's about not putting arts out on a limb. That's what is important about what we are doing, we are putting it in prime time."

It is rare for Lighting, 47, to take a pop at a rival. "Immaculate" is the word most-often used to describe this deliberately low-profile television chief, who combines designer-suited elegance with a reputation for clinching business deals through a mixture of charm and tough negotiation.

She also combines her watercolouring with a share in a West Country pub and a reputed capacity to drink any three men under the table.

Lighting has more than 20 years experience in the television industry. She previously worked for the media giant Flextech and oversaw its five channels - Bravo, Living, Trouble, Challenge and FTN - as well as having responsibility for UK Gold, a joint venture with the BBC.

She took control of the seven-year-old Five some 15 months ago and claims that it has finally come of age. "We are a grown-up now. We went through a slightly spotty teenage period but we've used the acne cream and we are cleaning up quite nicely now," she says.

Last month Five's audience share exceeded 7 per cent for the first time. "Those cynics who said we would never get over 5 per cent!" she exclaims. "And even last year they said we had plateaued at 6.5. It's not bad is it?"

Whether Five continues to attempt to grow like this or whether it merges with rival Channel 4 is the talk of the broadcasting industry. Gossips may have noticed Lighting having lunch with the Channel 4 chief executive turned BBC director general Mark Thompson last Wednesday.

Thompson's departure from Horseferry Road does not mean an end to the merger talks, Lighting says.

"As far as we were concerned, the conversations were with Channel 4, not just with Mark Thompson. It has been discussed at board [level] and with [chairman] Luke [Johnson]. We are delighted Mark has gone to the BBC but does it stop us talking to Channel 4? No it doesn't."

Lighting is quite open about saying that Five needs to multiply beyond being a single channel in order to go forward. "Rather than be single or even being twinned, over a period we will look at a family," she says.

"The advantage of having a family in whatever shape or form is not only to have more shelf space but to be able to promote from one channel offering to another."

Industry rumours continue to suggest that Channel 4 is Five's most likely bedfellow, but an alliance with Lighting's old firm Flextech is also being mooted.

"There are lots of ways of going about a multi-channel family strategy," says Lighting. "One is to develop from scratch, one is to go and buy it, one is to merge or joint venture with somebody, or have some kind of cross-promotional arrangement between channels where there was common ground."

As far as the organic growth of the channel is concerned, Five is planning in the autumn to increase its use of the red button and launch interactive advertising and gaming. "We are going to do some tests of running alternative programming, a second channel if you like, running behind the main channel at certain times of day," she says.

Freeview has been "a revelation for us", says Lighting, delivering Five a share of 9.7 per cent in homes that have the service. "We beat Channel 4 every month," she says.

In homes where it does not have to compete with BSkyB, Five's regular offerings of "football and blockbuster movies" offer "real added benefit", she says.

Although Lighting trumpets her highbrow programming, it is shows such as Britain's Worst Driver and The Curse of Blue Peter - and most of all the US acquisition CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) - that deliver Five's best ratings.

Nevertheless, she has bravely signed the channel up to an unlikely partnership with the Arts Council to run a project called Fivearts Cities - something she says the BBC will look at and think: "Why didn't we think of that?".

Five, she claims, has stepped into a void left by the BBC when it moved a substantial amount of its arts coverage to the digital channel BBC4. Lighting commissioned the art critic Waldemar Januszczak to analyse The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt and hired Loyd Grossman to present The History of British Sculpture.

"I think it was surprising we had the opportunity to be able to effectively fill a gap," she says.

The inaugural year of Fivearts Cities will be spent in Liverpool, the European Capital of Culture for 2008, before moving on to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. "It's going to run for a number of years. It's not like we are going to run out of art to talk about and places to go," she says.

Such a commitment from a channel previously regarded as shallow and even sordid must have surprised the arts establishment. Lighting admits: "You can't help wondering if they would have been as ready to associate themselves with Five a few years ago with the reputation that we had at that time. It says a lot about where Five has moved to."

But she says the Arts Council was reassured by the channel's handling of previous arts projects and its use of presenters such as Tim Marlow and Brian Sewell.

Lighting claims the accessible nature of such arts programming embodies the character of a channel that is "open and unpretentious". She says: "We take things seriously but we don't take life too seriously. It's not about being precious about the arts but about celebrating what's good about them."

She hopes that the Fivearts Cities project will also raise the channel's profile outside London. Research has shown that Five does especially well in cities such as Liverpool, Leeds and Birmingham, but it is still dogged by only reaching 82 per cent of the United Kingdom.

"There are still people that cannot reach us through their analogue aerials. That's one of the reasons why we as a broadcaster probably embrace multi-channel more than the other terrestrial channels."

Lighting says that because the channel only reaches four-fifths of homes it still has plenty of growing to do. "I don't see any signs of us slowing down," she says.

Sadly, the same can no longer be said for her ability to imbibe alcohol. "That reputation about me being able to drink any three of you under the table is sadly hardly true anymore," she concedes. "My metabolism won't let me enjoy myself so much - but once, yes, it was possibly true."

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