Feature

Chambers hopes revamp will make Five fun again

Young, affluent viewers are a priority for the channel's director of programmes Dan Chambers, writes Glen Mutel.

If watching Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee cutting dried faeces from the wool of a sheep's rear is your idea of fun, then you'll probably be quite excited about Five's autumn schedule.

But not as excited as the channel's director of programmes, Dan Chambers. Ten months after he replaced the Channel 4-bound Kevin Lygo, Chambers finally has a schedule to call his own.

At its heart is the reality event 'The Farm', produced by Endemol UK, the company behind 'Big Brother'. The three-week series will see 10 celebrities sequestered to a farm, where they will complete tasks in exchange for coal.

It is a brave move, especially given Five's previous attempt at the genre, 'Back to Reality', which was widely seen as a high-profile flop.

Chambers partly blames 'Back to Reality''s troubles on its awkward scheduling -- two hours daily in the tough 8pm and 11pm slots. He is determined not to make the same mistake twice. 'The Farm' will have a one-hour slot, in the 9pm to 10.30pm window.

Elsewhere in the autumn schedule there's the self-explanatory 'Cosmetic Surgery Live', reality offering 'Boxing Academy' and 'Ancient Egypt Week'.

The strongly performing property show 'House Doctor' gets shifted to a 9pm primetime slot for the first time while, thanks to an exclusive deal with Sony, films such as 'Terminator 3' will receive their UK premieres on the channel.

Chambers is confident the changes will help pull in the young, upmarket viewers advertisers fall over themselves to reach. This is crucial, for although the channel achieved a respectable audience share of 6.5% last year, its share of 16- to 34-year-olds and ABC1s lags way behind that of its rival Channel 4 and its overall share of TV ad revenue may have plateaued at 8.1%.

'Joey', the 'Friends' spin-off Five purchased for a reported £500,000 per episode, will play a key part in the channel's attempts to reach a more upmarket audience. "The value of 'Joey' is greater than the show itself," Chambers explains. "It's about saying to a younger upmarket audience, 'look, we're talking to you directly'."

Meanwhile, Five is looking beyond advertising for money-making initiatives. A new aspect of Chambers' job will be to help the broadcaster's recently assembled commercial development team find commercial applications for the channel's programmes.

"I see myself very much as a commercial beast," he says. "There's nothing better than great TV but TV is often at its best when it's commercial. I'm happy to help wherever I can."

Chambers has also taken responsibility for the drama department. It might mean extra work, but Chambers has slowly become resigned to early mornings, late evenings, the occasional working Sunday and less time to devote to scuba diving and photography.

He first joined Five three years ago to run the factual department after a spell at Channel 4, where he oversaw the science output.

Chambers claims that he has always seen himself as a programme-maker and has no desire to climb the "greasy pole any further". However, those who have worked closely with him say that this claim should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Christopher Hird, the joint managing director of Fulcrum TV, worked with Chambers when the latter was a freelance producer. "We always used to say he would become a commissioning editor one day," he says. "But unlike others, when he did he remained straightforward and courteous."

As for the future, Chambers is hoping to silence critics who say Five still lacks a distinct identity.

One such critic is Lygo, Chambers' former boss, who, at last month's Edinburgh television festival, publicly questioned the purpose of Five beyond being an outlet for cheap ads.

"He's a bastard isn't he?" Chambers jokes, before proceeding to explain how he has refined his predecessor's programming strategy.

"A few years ago Five got rid of the smut and introduced arts programming into primetime," he explains. "It cleaned up its act, but it also became a bit too serious. It's now undergoing a second change, which is about restoring a sense of fun to the channel."

Looming above all of this is the spectre of the Channel 4/Five merger. Chambers concedes that Five will need some sort of multichannel strategy if it is to thrive in a totally digital market, adding: "If the merger does happen, I think it will be within the next two years." And unless he has accidentally ascended that greasy pole, Chambers will be there to be part of it.

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