Channel 5 ready to fight the big four for a must-see slot

Last weekend Channel 4's chief executive, Mark Thompson, described British telly as 'dull, mechanical and samey', 'risk-averse' and, oh, a whole heap of other not very inspiring nor healthy things, writes Claire Beale.

Last weekend Channel 4 also announced ruthless cost-cutting and warned it might need to seek state aid to secure its future. And last weekend, the former Channel 5 chief David Elstein fingered ITV for "a decade of profound mismanagement."

But nary was a (very) bad word said about Channel 5. Quietly, stealthily and using all the cunning of the underdog, Channel 5 has become, daa daah, quite a good little channel, for its size, given its still-tighter-than-Robbie-Williams'-trousers programming budget, and considering what the competition's like these days.

Suddenly you can't move for positive stories that set your heart thudding with anticipation of having a reason, finally, to hit that fifth button. Even in the last couple of weeks the channel has announced plans for a new daily chat show hosted by DJ Chris Moyles (and featuring the ad industry's own Trevor Beattie), a new morning format with Gaby Roslin, both produced by Chris Evans, and the arrival of Clive Anderson and Carol Smillie. And this week's news that veteran drama producer Tony Garnett is also working on a crime show for Channel 5 is a real signifier of change.

Together all these little coups add up to, well... a little pile of rather good-sounding programmes. But a little pile of programmes does not a great channel make, does it? Actually, these days it probably does. Scour the TV schedules and you'd be hard pushed (if you're a reasonably discerning viewer) to find more than a couple of must-see programmes on terrestrial TV each evening. As Channel 5's director of programmes, Kevin Lygo, pointed out in Edinburgh: "Channel 5 doesn't have a monopoly on crap TV." Channel 4 is rapidly catching up ('Teenage Dwarves'?). And ITV has made a career of it. If, with its new schedule, Channel 5 can ensure it snaffles one of the must-see slots, it can start to establish itself as part of the mainstream viewing repertoire.

But before that happens, the channel is doing a bit more twiddling. Now desperate to rid itself of the original cheap and cheerful image, a rebranding is in order. The old Channel 5 name is to be replaced with a brand, Five, and a rebranding ad campaign by TBWA\London. Meanwhile, while the ad revenue market is up 3%, Channel 5 is up 26%. So job done for Dawn Airey, then? But changing the face of Five is one thing, scraping the mire off the many faces of ITV is quite another. And if ITV does get round to making Airey a firm offer to take their programming job, then they'll have to dig very deep. With some analysts expecting Five to float for about £2bn in 2006, Airey could do very nicely thank you by staying just where she is.

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