New world order: Five's Jane Lighting on how America can come to the channel's rescue

Life has been lonely for Jane Lighting. Five's chief executive has had to look on while rival organisations have sprouted channels and her own audiences have declined. So can America come to the rescue? She talks to Ian Burrell
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The Independent Online

It's the morning after the night Channel 4's More 4 screened its controversial depiction of the assassination of President George W Bush. The White House wasn't happy, but Jane Lighting has a kind of retaliation in mind that will help repair the special relationship.

The chief executive of Five channel is about to launch her own American-inspired foray into digital television with Five US, offering a mix of programming embracing basketball, gridiron, Stephen King dramatisations and the return of the Fonz and Happy Days.

Lighting, 49, settles back into a leather armchair in her fourth-floor Covent Garden office to explain her strategy. Five, not Channel 4, is already the home of the best American television, she claims. "I think we line up pretty well now. Clearly they still have Desperate Housewives, and Lost is a good show, though it's starting to lose its audience.

"But I think with CSI and House, Grey's Anatomy, Law & Order, NCIS and Prison Break we've got such a good line-up these days. I think we've probably slightly pinched their crown."

The launch tonight of Five US follows the debut last night of another offshoot, Five Life, the female digital twin in Lighting's young family of channels.

Chat will form an important part of Five Life's schedule, courtesy of Trisha Goddard's Trisha and - another American acquisition - The Ellen DeGeneres Show. But the real clue in the name is its similarity to the successful subscription channel Living, which Lighting oversaw in her previous role as chief executive of Flextech.

Lighting explains how, having decided to establish her new channels on the Freeview platform, she and her team hit on the idea of a proposition targeted at young housewives. "We looked across at pay television and said, 'Okay, where have the successful brands been and what are the elements to the channels that have really worked?' If we can take some of that and move it across to Freeview, then hopefully we've got a really good formula. We felt there was a big gap around housewives with children, and that the 16- to 34-year-old woman was not really catered for on Freeview."

She has, she admits, looked on in admiration at what Living has done. "What's clear about Living is that it's a general entertainment channel for women but it isn't alien to blokes, and that's a really smart place to be. Without saying this is a copycat of Living - it certainly isn't, we have quite a different schedule - but in terms of the space we are offering, yes that's true."

Lighting believes that there is a lack of provision, particularly for the Freeview audience, of what she describes as "the best of America". So tonight's launch of Five US, a channel skewed towards a male audience, has been preceded by a long-running advertising "tease" using the slogan "Who Says Nothing Good Ever Came Out of America", produced by the agency VCCP.

The campaign, designed to disprove this premise by revealing a schedule of great American content, misfired slightly when complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority that the ads, which made no mention of a TV channel, were anti-American and racist. Peter Dale, More 4's chief, might have moaned that the "tease" idea was a lift of his own channel's launch, with its ambiguous promise of "adult entertainment".

If there has been a little pilfering of ideas, Lighting need hardly apologise. She has had to tear at her carefully coiffed tresses in frustration as Five has fended for itself while its rivals have formed into gangs of channels.

"If you don't have a multi-channel strategy, it's a really tough world," she says. "Being on the Freeview platform as a single channel, competing with Channel 4, which has got - how many channels? And ITV. It was very fierce competition. When you are there as one brand with a single schedule, you have no tactics, no way of counter-scheduling."

Five ended up getting quite severely bullied. Its audience share had risen year by year to more than 7 per cent, but the numbers went into reverse last year, tumbling to 5.9 per cent. In an assessment of Lighting's director of programmes, Dan Chambers, Broadcast magazine snorted at his "dreadful scores".

The chance to create more channels came after Five became wholly owned last year by RTL, a division of the Bertelsmann media and entertainment group. "We really felt it was important that we got our multichannel strategy up by this year," says Lighting, who used the delay to cherry-pick some of her rivals' "best practices". "Of course it has been frustrating, but it has also been a fantastic learning experience because we've been watching them like hawks - which ones have worked, which have gone back to the drawing board. It's been incredibly valuable."

It was also a period during which Five has come up with ideas for channels and thrown them out. "We had a number of incarnations. There were a few channel propositions that we put together and not only tested among ourselves but put out to focus groups."

When Five tested reaction to a children's channel, news leaked out. Lighting decided to abandon the plan, although Milkshake (a children's strand that features such characters as Roobarb and Custard and Peppa Pig) has been very successful on Five and will run to midday on Five Life.

While Channel 4 decided to make Film4 available free on digital, Lighting had doubts. "Channel 4 made a completely different decision on this, but we felt a film channel was possibly too limiting and there was too much competition. We were also questioning what the impact of download video-on-demand was going to be on those channels," she says. "People are buying or renting DVDs or are downloading, or they've got access to pay-per-view or subscription."

Films - along with football and, er, sex - were famously one of the "three Fs" associated with Five when Lighting joined the channel in 2003. Since then, she has been trying to take the network very gradually upmarket. "It's a constant process, it never stops. The channel is still evolving. We needed to move away from the position we held. We had gone as far as we could go with Five, or Channel 5, as it was then. It wasn't appealing enough to the advertising community. We needed to take the channel more upmarket and be more diverse, to make the schedule richer. It's amazing how far the channel has come, but it needs to keep going."

Advertisers have responded, she says. "We've got more sponsors and brands that want to be associated with our programmes. We've got Rolls-Royce [sponsor of Five's coverage of the Royal Institute Christmas science lectures]. Who would have thought it? You can't get much more pukka than that!"

Lighting, who likes to relax by painting watercolours, is proud that the "three Fs" channel now enjoys a partnership with the Arts Council for the five-year project Five Arts Cities. But she's a sociable character - she has a share in a Devon pub - and "populist" is still her watchword.

"Look at our arts programming; whether it's [presenters] Brian Sewell or Tim Marlow, it's straightforward and it will bring the arts to people in an accessible way, with energy and with a degree of emotion. It's not highbrow or pretentious, it's a channel for the people. It will never aspire to be BBC2."

True to this lack of pretentiousness, the painting on her office wall is not one of hers, but a print from John Lewis. She remarks that one visitor admired it with the comment: "John Lewis? I haven't heard of him..." Perhaps a Lighting original would make more of a statement.

Critics of Five, which marks its 10th anniversary in March, say the channel has yet to find a stand-out original hit. CSI, the hugely popular US whodunit family, is by far its biggest success and will form the backbone of Five US, alongside acquisitions such as the Fox series Shark, starring James Woods as a maverick Los Angeles attorney.

Lighting denies the charge that Five doesn't produce its own content, citing the wedding-based drama Perfect Day, which is being made into a mini-series. She's also excited about Tripping Over, a drama co-produced by the Cold Feet creator Mike Bullen and jointly funded by Five and Australia's Channel 10. It will air on Five Life at the end of the month.

"It's about a group of young people, Brits and Aussies. They meet up in Bangkok, and there's a terrible accident that is the catalyst for a load of other things happening. It's full of romance and twists and turns."

At the head of Five Life's schedule last night was the hit Aussie drama Love My Way; a "thirtysomething Friends piece". The new channel will also be the main home of Home and Away.

But ultimately, Lighting is a businesswoman. At the forefront of her plans is the video-on-demand (VOD) download service, launched last week. It initially offers unseen CSI episodes for £2.49 or screened shows for £1.49. Lighting thinks this development is crucial to Five's future.

"I'm interested to see what we can do around the children's area, because in terms of VOD, I feel it falls into a few genres. People will pay for movies. I think they will pay for children's shows and comedy; things with high repeatability. I think advertiser-funded VOD will be the business model that comes through. People will want to download, but they'll be more willing to watch adverts to get content for free."

Lighting says Five is among those broadcasters looking to develop a VOD model that prevents fast-forwarding through the ads. "I think it's really important that we are part of this. As fast as we are developing and evolving Five as a TV brand, we need to be developing our brand online as well."