MEDIA HEADLINER: The missionary programmer set to cleanse C5 with the arts - Barb shows C5 has gained an audience which cannot be ignored

A rumour going around the seamier parts of Soho's media village is that Channel 5 has undergone a miraculous rebirth. The story is that it has shed its tawdry soft porn skin and evolved into a more cultured and sophisticated beast with a strange new fetish for the arts. However, critics have claimed it is merely exchanging its old predilection for tit for a schedule based largely on tat.

Last year Channel 5 appointed the high-profile programming director Kevin Lygo, who with the zeal of a missionary has very publicly gone through the schedule, cleansing away previous sins and apparently inculcating a culture of piety and a Victorian thirst for self-improvement.

Lygo, who arrived from Channel 4 a year ago, is as famous for describing his aspirations for the station as "Channel 4 without the boring bits", as its chief executive, Dawn Airey, is for once proudly calling its schedule "football, films and fucking".

But critics say that while arts programmes may be worthy, they are certainly not big ratings winners. "It all comes down to how you define art, one rival says. "Certainly, if endless profiles of Hitler define art, then Lygo may not be wrong."

There can be no questioning the channel's commercial success. In what has been a thoroughly dismal year, Channel 5 has experienced impressive levels of growth for both its audience and its advertising revenue.

While critics have dismissed this as just another freak created by the bizarre behaviour of a dubious new Barb panel, its commercial rivals and TV buyers can no longer afford to ignore Channel 5's existence.

"Besides, like it or not the new Barb panel is the only currency we have, MindShare's investment director, Nick Theakstone, says. And in fairness to Channel 5, the germ of this growth can be extrapolated back to last year's panel.

When Channel 5 launched five years ago it had a schedule dominated by tatty made-for-TV movies, the very occasional bit of sport and a fair few skin flicks ... and was the punchline of many jokes as a result.

It aspired to gain a 5 per cent share for both audience and revenue, and for a while it chugged along nicely - the assumption being that it provided entertainment and a bit of Friday night titillation for people who live in caravans.

But its move upmarket has been famously and publicly shouted from the rooftops - no shows have been quietly dropped a la ITV.

Dross such as Fort Boyard and Desert Forges, which came to symbolise Channel 5 in its early days, have made way for music strands such as Great Dates and arts programmes such as Now Here.

On top of this the station has also embarked on some high-profile bidding wars outside of the arts arena. Lygo was responsible for the head-to-head battle with Channel 4 for the terrestrial rights to The Simpsons and the three-way shoot-out for MTV's extraordinarily successful The Osbournes.

In the end both went to Channel 4, and with a meagre £149 million programming budget it was moot whether Lygo ever had much of a chance in the first place. However, what it did achieve was to raise the profile of Channel 5 and highlight its considerable ambition.

"The few good quality shows are thin and far between, and there are so many people fishing for them, Lygo admits.

Lygo, who at Channel 4 commissioned the likes of Smack The Pony and Ali G, acknowledges that Channel 5 requires a peaktime banker to draw the audiences in. The first attempt to do this was with Home & Away, which Channel 5 snatched from ITV before Lygo joined. This rattled ITV, and its early peak schedule has never really recovered as a result.

As well as Home & Away, Lygo says that US imports such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Law & Order have gone some of the way to drawing in audiences to sample the channel's offerings.

"People are starting to sample Channel 5, although it is always tricky to get people to do this, he confesses. That said, Channel 5 has managed to spread its tiny budget remarkably successfully.

Martin Sambrook, the global account director at Media Audits, says: "Channel 5 has been fleet of foot in the way it operates and tries new things. It has grown with remarkable momentum given the flimsy programming budget."

Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, remains unconvinced: "Although it has established a foothold in commercial television, if it disappeared tomorrow then I doubt it would be much of a loss."

Few would agree. Under Lygo Channel 5 has lost its previous image as a cheap terrestrial and is becoming a mainstream station in its own right.

Future commissions can only continue to improve its look.

THE LYGO FILE
1983: BBC, trainee
1985: art dealer
1991: BBC, comedy producer
1996: BBC, head of independent production
1997: Channel 4, head of entertainment
2001: Channel 5, director of programmes

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