Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign and editor of Media Week
Arif Durrani, head of media at Campaign and editor of Media Week
A view from Arif Durrani

Three years on, everyman Desmond commands more respect at Channel 5

The summer holidays have finally arrived, as has our future king, so it's easy to forget the smaller milestones.

But, on the tenth floor of a nondescript office block, a stone’s throw from London’s Monument station, Richard Desmond is this week quietly celebrating three years as the owner of Channel 5.

The self-made media mogul took the TV world by surprise when he bought the terrestrial network in July 2010. His £104 million bid is believed to have been twice the size of any other offer on the table for the then struggling broadcaster. From the outset, Desmond was adamant that, "with the right investment, drive and leadership", Channel 5 could go from "strength to strength as a competitive broadcaster and a modern player for the digital viewer".

On one level, Desmond has done what Desmond does. He has fastidiously stripped out any perceived excesses. Costs have been slashed across the board, from the large to the ridiculous. The programme budget, for example, is rumoured to have been pared back to less than £150 million, down from the £220 million spent in 2008. (This is denied by the broadcaster.) Less dramatically, but more cynically, Desmond saved a few quid by pulling out of Thinkbox, the TV marketing body.

The truth is, C5 continues to benefit from any activities conducted by Thinkbox, but it is its rival stakeholders - ITV, Channel 4 and BSkyB  - who pick up the tab. It’s a well tried and tested wheeze by the owner of Express Newspapers and OK! Magazine; he has let rival publishers similarly carry the can at industry bodies for many years.

'Viewers have responded, with Channel 5 the only commercial family to grow audience share last year'


On a more positive note, there has been investment too. The Big Brother franchise continues to perform well, while newer additions such as World’s Toughest Trucker and Cowboy Builders have helped create a distinctive voice.

Viewers have responded, with Channel 5 the only commercial family to grow audience share last year among 16-34s and ABC1 audiences. Last week, it beat Channel 4’s share of viewing for the first time in its 16-year history. Financially, too, it’s in a better place, with a near £50 million loss in 2010 turning into a £26 million profit in 2011. Revenues dropped by around 10 per cent last year, but double-digit growth is expected to take revenues beyond £350 million in 2013.

Desmond has also had success in penetrating the old-boys' network. Nowhere is this more symbolically played out than in YouView, the joint industry catch-up TV initiative, which now sits in Desmond’s office. It ensures regular and, by all accounts, congenial contact with his fellow terrestrial leaders Adam Crozier (ITV), David Abraham (Channel 4) and Tony Hall (BBC).

One insider notes: "Part of Richard’s success comes from his love of the business. He genuinely likes watching TV. For all his wealth, he remains a man of the people, right up until he climbs into his Bentley."