Viewing slump casts shadow over E4's first birthday celebrations

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Channel 4's youth service E4 reaches its first anniversary next week with its share of the audience falling.

Despite the appeal of heavy-hitting American series such as ER and Friends, which both have the première of their seventh series on the channel tonight, E4 is winning less than 1 per cent of the audience in homes that receive digital or cable television.

Even its best-performing programmes attract only about 800,000 viewers, barely matching the worst performances of the Sky One channel, while BBC Choice regularly attracts 600,000 viewers for repeats of EastEnders.

Although Big Brother boosted audience figures enormously in so-called "multi-channel" homes over the summer, with more than 600,000 viewers for the live broadcasts, E4's figures have slumped since the show ended in August. Industry insiders say the success of Big Brother distorts the true picture of what is happening at E4 and audience share for the channel has dropped to 0.41 per cent if its effect is stripped out.

Some shows barely feature in the ratings at all. E4's drama, As If, which costs about £12,000 an episode to make, registers fewer than 5,000 viewers.

Dan Brooke, E4's general manager, insisted the channel was pleased with its first year and was on target to make a profit within five years. He said: "There's been a whole series of very successful programmes. Big Brother and the American shows did very well and some of our home-grown programmes – such as Banzai and As If – have transferred to Channel 4." He suggested that premiering shows on E4 appeared to improve their performance when they transferred to terrestrial television. "It's a bit like when film distributors do exclusive screenings in order to get people talking about it; that's the effect that's created," he said.

Mr Brooke said the channel had won a 1.3 per cent share in digital homes alone, a figure that exceeded its target of 1 per cent. But official figures show that including all platforms, such as analogue cable, E4 failed to meet the target.

A Sky spokesman said although both Sky One and E4 were general entertainment channels, Sky One was "snapping at the heels" of Channel 5 and UK Gold, whereas E4 was a tiny niche service.

"E4 were on record last year talking about a 1 per cent share," he said. "On that basis, I would expect them to be disappointed. Big Brother, for example, is a genuine phenomenon that comes along once every 10 years but it has a limited shelf-life. What are they going to do about the rest of the schedule?"

Stuart Murphy, who runs BBC Choice, said E4 had looked "quite an exciting proposition" when it launched. "Probably for the first month or so it delivered, but it's got less and less [exciting] as the year has gone on," he said.