Ian Burrell: Prepare for an 'OK!' diet of celebrity gossip and reality TV

It seems inevitable that Desmond will use Channel Five as a lever to sign celebrity deals
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The Independent Online

Richard Desmond's purchase of channel Five could mean a swift return to British television for Big Brother, the reality-television show which is being dropped from the schedules of Channel 4.

Mr Desmond began his negotiations to buy Five three months ago in a joint initiative with Endemol, the Dutch-based production company that owns the rights to Big Brother, which it first made in 1999. Although the media baron decided, three weeks into the talks, to do the deal with Five's owners, RTL, without Endemol, he remains keen on bringing the reality show back to Britain. He is said to be interested in making versions of other formerly successful television shows, such as Top of the Pops.

Ownership of a terrestrial television channel will offer the owner of the Northern & Shell publishing empire and Express Newspapers considerable scope for raising the profile of his various brands across media platforms. Mr Desmond's Daily Star tabloid already devotes extensive coverage to Big Brother and would expect to benefit from a closer relationship with the programme.

Given the success of OK! magazine, which sells 6 million copies a week in 23 international editions, it seems inevitable that Mr Desmond will use Five as a lever to sign celebrity deals that include related programming. The magazine has existing contracts with the popular cover stars Katie Price and Kerry Katona, who could be given their own TV formats. Editorial opportunities would also exist for Mr Desmond's other celebrity titles, New! and Star, although references that openly encouraged purchase of Mr Desmond's products would be in breach of both cross-media ownership regulations and the new rules on product placement which are to be introduced at the end of this year.

Mr Desmond has promised to invest in the content of the channels, but within Fleet Street he is regarded as an asset-stripper. Although he has made handsome profits from his newspapers, they operate with a fraction of the resources of their rivals, and the right-wing Express titles have been censured for their reporting, most notably over coverage of Madeleine McCann, for which the Daily Express had to publish a grovelling apology for more than 100 "seriously defamatory" stories.

The media mogul has seen how Rupert Murdoch has developed synergies between BSkyB, in which Mr Murdoch's News Corp is the largest shareholder, and News International, his stable of national newspapers. It would not be in breach of broadcasting regulations for Five, or its digital sister channels, to feature columnists from Mr Desmond's newspapers. The married television presenters Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan write for the Daily Express, as does the former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, who has television-presenting experience.

When Mr Desmond bought the Express titles a decade ago, there were howls of protest over his ownership of porn magazines. Today, thanks to his broadcasting arm, Portland TV, which makes the adult channels Television X and Red Hot TV, Mr Desmond already has a licence from the media watchdog Ofcom.

Staff at Five yesterday voiced concern at a possible lurch downmarket. Yet famously, the current chief executive, Dawn Airey, once memorably associated the broadcaster with the "three Fs", saying it was about more than "football, films and fucking".