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Millions stay switched off for C5 launch

Never in the field of broadcasting have so many telly folk sacrificed so much of their Easter weekend in the expectation that so few of their fellow subjects of this realm will bother to tune into their lavish audiovisual offerings.

The launch of Channel 5 tomorrow evening has prompted Britain's rival broadcasters to serve up a veritable bonanza for viewers consisting of a multi-million pound raft of films, dramas and soaps.

But bosses at the fledgling channel are bracing themselves for only 1.5 million people tuning into some of their first night fare - one-tenth of the average audience for Coronation Street and far fewer viewers than tune into the Antiques Roadshow.

Part of the problem is that at least 40 per cent of British viewers will be technically unable to tune into the country's last free-to-air network. The proportion encountering difficulty could be even higher.

The new station itself is forecasting that at least one million callers will this weekend flood a special helpline which has been set up mainly to advise people about retuning. But it claims to be still confident that it will meet its target of a 5 per cent share of total audience by the end of this year. Channel 5 is, however, hoping to get off to a hot start, with the Spice Girls performing a specially commissioned song - "The Power of 5".

Its schedule begins at 6pm tomorrow with a star-studded curtain-raising drama about the Stephanie Slater kidnap. Other highlights include a spoof medical satire called Hospital!, featuring Emma Thompson and Greg Wise. And the Spice Girls will chat as well as sing on the first edition of The Jack Docherty Show.

The established rival channels will endeavour to eclipse these new kids on the box tomorrow evening by screening films such as Sister Act 2 and Born On the Fourth of July plus hit sitcoms like Birds of A Feather and Cold Feet. But the ratings war will really begin on Easter Monday when the fifth channel presents its first full schedule.

ITV has responded aggressively, scheduling five big feature films including Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Robocop 2.

BBC1's Monday schedule features Lord of the Dance - a made-for-TV version of the former Riverdance star Michael Flatley's new show. Auntie is also offering the film thriller Malice, starring Nicole Kidman, and two episodes of EastEnders at 6.40pm and 8.30pm. Channel 4 will aim to retain its audience share through Neil Simon's comedy film The Goodbye Girl and the Charles Bronson thriller Breakheart Pass.

The battle for viewers will continue to rage throughout next week when ITV screens editions of Emmerdale each evening from Monday to Friday in an attempt to spike the launch of C5's five-days-a-week soap Family Affairs. Yet, despite investing so much in these unseasonal Easter spoilers, ITV and BBC executives are playing down the impact of their new rival, claiming that the main ratings battle will still be fought out between themselves.

But the focus is obviously going to be on Channel 5, whose director of programmes, Dawn Airey, is bracing herself for some adverse critical reaction. Britain's fifth terrestrial tele- vision channel will pull off a unique achievement if its debut does not go down as a fiasco. BBC2, TVAM, Channel 4, and British Satellite Broadcasting all got off to an embarrassing start.