Mathew Horsman predicts an assault on Channel 5

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The Independent Online
I can guarantee you that the media sections of newspapers, as well as the pages of trade rags, will be filled all summer with negative stories about Channel 5. I don't make this prediction because the Independent has a grudge against the new terrestrial TV service. Far from it, for how can one be against extended choice, new outlets for British TV talent, and another option for advertisers keen to push down the rates they current pay to greedy ITV and Channel 4?

No, Channel 5 will come in for column inch after column inch of negative publicity as a direct result of the in-bred structure of the UK media industry and the way journalism works.

Let's consider why. After much deep and detailed consideration by the worthies at the Independent Television Commission, the Channel 5 licence was awarded in October last year to a joint venture of Pearson, MAI (now United News & Media) and CLT, doubtless a stellar, if tiresomely predictable group. But the winners are perhaps less interesting than the losers. Among the companies that failed to get a piece of C5, in no particular order, were: Granada, BSkyB, Virgin, Associated Newspapers, HTV and SelectTV (whose cable channel is now part of Carlton).

Of these, two are ITV companies (Granada and HTV), two are cable channel operators (Associated and SelecTV), and one is the pay-TV sector's undisputed giant (BSkyB). Now, what do you think they are all saying about Channel 5's prospects? It is not hard to imagine that every one of these companies has a vested interest in seeing Channel 5 fail.

Those ITV franchise-holders that failed to win a share of the new licence are now prime targets in their own areas of C5's marketing and scheduling. C5 will look like ITV 2 (although cheaper) and will look to take viewers away from the traditional channel 3 services. Those companies with a big and growing commitment to pay-TV, such as Associated's Channel One, Carlton's SelecTV, or Granada, which is launching satellite services in league with BSkyB in October, are equally at risk from the launch of C5.

All these companies, to a greater or lesser degree, originally bid for the licence in order to offset the effects of new competition in the marketplace. When they were in the running, Channel 5 was a clear winner, a wonderful use of shareholders' funds. Now that they have lost, their attention is focused on ensuring that the winners get as rough a ride as possible.

And in this, they are aided and abetted by the press, which loves to be briefed on contentious issues, cannot resist the whispered innuendo, won't say no to a "confidential" report proving how unappetising the Channel 5 programming line-up is.

Even worse for C5's owners, the losers all spent thousands of pounds researching the most difficult element of a new Channel 5 service: the need to retune millions of VCRs up and down the country to ensure that the signal can be received by a maximum number of homes. In the files of senior executives at Granada, BSkyB, Associated, and the rest are full- scale reports on the retuning exercise, along with confidential information about the logistics, the technical issues and - crucially - the costs.

Rather than go about the somewhat prosaic task of retuning in a climate of serene isolation, C5 is obliged to promote the procedure widely, alerting British householders to the retuner's impending visit. There can be few secrets about the campaign if it is to work.

But even those bits C5 would like to keep secret are already represented in the files of the losers. Every bidding group did a detailed, line-by- line critique of the competitors' applications, concentrating on the retuning task. And you can be sure that selected "facts" about the procedure have already been sent down fax lines to selected journalists, followed up by a helpful telephone briefing.

"You know, they are already way behind schedule," one comment might run. Or, "according to our retuning plans, there is no way they can do it for the budget they have set." How about, "Have you asked them about the aerial problem?"

It's all done in the spirit of helpfulness, or course. Just a contact at one of the losing companies helping out his mate in the trade and mainstream press.

This is the way much of journalism gets done: and good hacks use their judgement before swallowing the line whole. It is precisely how the Channel 5 story was covered in the run-up to the award, as the high bidder, the hapless CanWest, was dumped on by all and sundry, while the second, third, and fourth placed consortia busily trashed each other too. Fair enough, and very useful it was too for those of us listening in on the antics.

The trouble for C5, however, is the sheer number of companies arrayed against it, and the extent of the detailed, technical information each possesses on what is likely to be the major issue in the months leading up to the launch.

As a public service, then, let's write a few of the headlines right now, thereby saving you all from reading them later this summer. "Channel 5 misses retuning target." Or "C5 budget under strain." Or "Channel 5 launch date in doubt." Or even worse, "C5 retuner pinches widow's telly."

Stories such as these will be useful to C5 competitors, provided advertisers are spooked, potential viewers are anxious and the channel's managers are running scared.

For the record, the retuning exercise is going to be a nightmare. The launch is going to be rocky. And the Independent will gleefully report every stage. Just so you know.