What do the zoologist Richard Dawkins, the poet Andrew Motion, the art critic Brian Sewell, and the rapper Vanilla Ice all have in common? Answer: they all appear on Five, a television channel once derided for relying on sex, sport and C-list movies, but that is now throwing up surprises in the form of science, history and arts documentaries.
Under Dan Chambers, who, at 36, is the youngest controller of any of the five main terrestrial channels, Five has ventured into genres traditionally covered by BBC 2 and Channel 4. But it is a mark of Five's dual personality that it is also the channel where you will find less mentally taxing offerings such as the new reality-TV experiment The Farm, shows such as Cosmetic Surgery Live and, newly poached from ITV, Trisha Goddard - Britain's answer to Jerry Springer.
The Farm is intended to be the highlight of Chambers' autumn schedule, and is his second bid for a reality-TV hit, following the flop earlier this year of Back To Reality, in which contestants from other reality-TV shows were confined to a house. This time, Five has transported nine Z-list celebrities to a farm in Wiltshire, where they have to carry out tasks such as mucking out pigs, milking cows and dagging sheep.
In the first of three weeks, viewing figures for the series (masterminded by Channel 4's former "Mr Property", Ben Frow, poached by Chambers to come up with lifestyle hits) have ranged between 1.2 million and 1.4 million, only slightly more respectable than Back To Reality's disappointing 1 million. But Chambers insists that the show is attracting double the usual number of key 16-34-year-old viewers.
Ever the optimist, he hopes that even John Humphrys, who proclaimed his disdain for reality TV at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, will like the show. "I had dinner with Humphrys, and he wasn't condemning all reality TV. I hope that he will see that The Farm is entertaining and that you learn something, that it has a valuable role."
The Today presenter is more likely to be impressed by initiatives such as the Fivearts Cities, which brings film and theatre to some of the poorest areas of Liverpool, and has spawned a new poem from Roger McGough. Five is also going to stage debates on the latest issues in science, in partnership with the Royal Institution.
Chambers' talent for mixing the lowbrow with more intelligent programming - including science shows featuring Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking, a forthcoming poem from Andrew Motion to mark the 60th anniversary of VE Day, and Brian Sewell tracing the history of the Rolls-Royce - stems from his background as a science commissioning editor at Channel 4 and, before that, as a documentary-maker. But he has no intention of producing a relentlessly highbrow diet. "If you look back at the channel, three years ago it was still tits-and-arse and very tabloid. Then the documentaries were massively scaled up. If I have a criticism, it's that it lost its joie de vivre. I want to bring back some of the mischief and controversy."
Comedy is one area in which Chambers is investing heavily. He recently paid around £500,000 an episode for the Friends spin-off Joey, a gamble that appears to have paid off as the sitcom's run has just been extended in the US, where it is this autumn's hit. Five has also acquired the rights to two other American imports, Two and a Half Men, starring Charlie Sheen, and Crazy For You, about a quirky New York couple. To complete the package, Chambers, who hopes to establish a comedy zone by the end of next year, has poached Graham Smith from the BBC to develop home-grown comedy in partnership with the Paramount Comedy Channel.
The other big change at Five is the news, which, from January, will be produced by Sky News, who won the contract from ITN. Jobs are at risk as a result, leading the NUJ to accuse Five of dumping a high-quality news service in return for a cheap contract. "It wasn't about money, it was about quality of service," insists Chambers. "And about having fresh blood and enthusiasm."
In the meantime, Five's fortunes will be riding on the pigs, the cows and the sheep.
- More about:
- Channel 4
- Indie Music
- Jerry Springer
- Plastic Surgery
- Reality Television