MEDIA FORUM: What's the lookout for Five's new chief executive?

Everyone agrees Dawn Airey will be a hard act to follow. Will the ad industry learn to love Five's new head, Jane Lighting? Alasdair Reid reports.

Jane Who? If we've come to view the media business as a soap opera, then it's unsettling when a new character comes along and grabs centre stage. Exciting, naturally, but disturbing all the same. We'd really rather see a little bit more continuity in the plot line.

Thus the "Jane Who?" stuff. Jane Who is, of course, Jane Lighting, confirmed last week as the new chief executive of the channel now known as Five.

She succeeds Dawn Airey, a class act of a soap diva if ever there was one, who is now ensconced as the managing director of Sky Networks.

The reaction of Lorna Tilbian, a media analyst at Numis, is typical.

"It has certainly been hailed as a good appointment but we don't know very much about her, I'm afraid. She is certainly less high profile than Dawn Airey - which is not necessarily a bad thing given that they want to promote the Five brand, not the chief executive," she says.

Chris Locke, the managing director of MediaVest, is perhaps rather less than impressed with Lighting's Flextech pedigree (she was its chief executive).

"It's a bit of a dichotomy isn't it, when people say they're employing someone with a programming background at Flextech? What's she done then? Bought in Charmed? And anyway, you get out of jail for at least a year in a job like the one she's going to. The big things are in place already. She'll be looking for short-term stuff."

Actually, say those who know, that's not at all fair. Lighting has a rather decent track record in programming - and the advertising industry will be forced to concede this sooner rather than later. One source who has worked with Lighting on the programming side comments: "She's been highly successful going right back to the 80s in programme distribution and with Minotaur (a programming and distribution arm of Flextech). Flextech decided fairly early on that you can't make a real difference if all you are doing is buying in US material of variable quality. So it put a lot more into original programming than people realise - things such as Sin Cities and World's Deadliest Gangs. As far as I can see, she has sharpened up the whole business culture there. It's much more of a creative company than people give it credit for and Lighting is one of those rare people - she works brilliantly with creatives and she's an excellent manager.

I'm surprised that the advertising world seems so surprised, quite frankly."

Some observers point out that her main task could be to keep the remains of the current management team in place, especially the director of programming, Kevin Lygo. If she can do that then it will be "steady as she goes" with Lygo continuing to do what he's been doing so effectively over the past year or so. Similarly, Lighting's role will then focus on dealing with Five's shareholders, especially RTL, in order to guarantee future programming budget commitments.

David Cuff, the commercial director of Flextech, also reveals that Lighting is no stranger to advertising issues. "She's impressive," he insists. "She understands tele-vision from all angles - advertising, creative and the business side."

Which has to be good news, surely? Not that she will have much to do with the sales side in the short term - the deputy chief executive, Nick Milligan, doesn't need much advice in that area. "From a sales point of view, the appointment has to be good. They'll be left alone, won't they?" Locke jokes. But he thinks that the channel could face a tough time this year - it's likely to be squeezed by increasing competition in multi-channel homes, not just from Sky but from a whole range of players. On the terrestrial front, ITV and the BBC are both committed to delivering strong audience performances this year.

That's already putting pressure on Five to deliver on its airtime deals.

Locke adds: "I think, strategically, they're really going to find it tough that they don't have the equivalent of an E4 or an ITV2, which can help take the pressure off inventory. It has done its deals - now it's about delivering what people expect it to deliver. People like Five and it adds cover and is a cost reducer but I could walk Five off every single schedule here and not one client would complain."

Chris Hayward, the head of TV buying at ZenithOptimedia, agrees that Five faces a difficult time this year. "The channel has had a good couple of years in terms of revenue and audiences - and revenue is very much allied to audience share. The challenge is to ensure that they don't arrive at a plateau. Landing Home and Away was a coup but the push forward has not just been based on that. Its factual content, for instance, has pulled in some interesting audiences."

Hayward welcomes the solid performance of bought-in material such as The Shield and Crime Scene Investigation, but he would like it to have more "must-see" elements, such as The Book Club and Graham Norton at Channel 4, in its schedule. He says: "Five has been good at spotting opportunities and being quick on its feet - you could argue that it basically pinched The Shield which might have been more at home on Channel 4. But the problem is that the real programming nuggets come up once in a blue moon. I think it could also identify the sorts of programmes that can change its audience profile. There is a still a perception that Channel 4 is much more young and upmarket. They have the brains and enthusiasm at Five and the compactness of the organisation works well for them but they do face some tough challenges."

John Blakemore, the UK advertising director of GlaxoSmithKline, has not traditionally been a big user of Five. Is this appointment likely to make him think again? He says: "I know little about Jane Lighting but you have to presume Five did its homework. The big question from our point of view is did Nick Milligan go for the job? And if not, why not? Is his ego bruised? Is he still committed? Or has he got something else up his sleeve? People have obviously been speculating that a consolidation of sales houses is on the cards."

The theory is that a Carlton-Granada merger will prompt Sky and Five to combine their sales operations. Blakemore would not welcome either of these sales house developments. "From my point of view, there is no advantage from having fewer sales points," he says. And he agrees Lighting faces a tough battle this year because the competition for ratings will be that much tougher than it has been of late. "ITV has just got to turn itself around and the BBC is also entering an interesting period with regard to the whole issue of licence fee renewal. I don't think anyone can predict what the BBC will do in terms of ratings."