ELSTEIN ON CHANNEL 5: It launches on Sunday, it’s survived a smear campaign and is not worried by the digital revolution. Claire Beale finds Channel 5’s chief executive in characteristically ebullient mood

There’s a tradition in media that every launch must fail before it succeeds. ITV, Sky, Channel 4 - the doom merchants had plenty to cackle about before corners were turned. You will have heard the doom merchants cackling about Channel 5 for months. It goes on air this week but there’s still a way to go before that corner.

There’s a tradition in media that every launch must fail before it

succeeds. ITV, Sky, Channel 4 - the doom merchants had plenty to cackle

about before corners were turned. You will have heard the doom merchants

cackling about Channel 5 for months. It goes on air this week but

there’s still a way to go before that corner.



But for David Elstein, chief executive and not one for observing

conventional wisdom, it’s no sweat. ’Perhaps there’s something wrong

with me. There are no butterflies, no sleepless nights, no anxieties.’

He may look tired and a little interview-weary - first-rate media tart

though he is - but nervous, no. ’It’s to do with seeing your way clear,’

Elstein explains in his familiar drawl. ’I can visualise the launch,

it’s not an unknown, I’ve a clear sense of what that first night is

going to look like, and it’s a cracking line-up.’



Channel 5 launches on Sunday, free to air, with a pounds 110 million

programming budget (pounds 440 million less than ITV’s network budget),

with 60 per cent of homes able to view its first day on air - assuming

that their aerials are up to it and they don’t live behind a hill - with

a pounds 22 million a year licence fee, into a TV market that’s about to

go digital, and with one major issue for the ad industry to ponder:

working out what the hell ’modern mainstream’ means.



Despite these challenges, Channel 5 intends to take a 5 per cent share

of all viewing between April and December, and a share of commercial TV

revenue of between 4 and 5.5 per cent, according to industry

estimates.



And Elstein is confident of success, as he defines it. ’Getting to air,

on time, in good order, looking good, with no post-launch retuning

crisis, with advertiser confidence, with a reasonably full order book,

with ratings that start respectable and become good, with some shows

that people regard as different, welcome and a distinct addition to the

roster of programming available to the great British public. That’s what

I regard as a successful launch.’



But Channel 5 launches after a relentless, though not entirely

successful, ’biggest willy’ war which has sought to undermine these

ingredients for success. Waged against the newcomer by those in the

bowels of the ITV Network Centre, predicting a constant stream of poor

penetration figures and warning of a delayed arrival, the campaign has

raised some doubts about just how successful Channel 5’s launch will

be.



’There has been a degree of open and covert bad-mouthing,’ Elstein

concedes.



’ITV doesn’t hire Jim Cavanagh as a consultant to find out good things

about Channel 5.’ But with a barrage of negative headlines about Channel

5’s retuning process, its reception quality and the number of homes

which will be able to receive a watchable picture, is some of the mud

sticking?



’Oh no, not on Channel 5, no,’ replies Elstein with a practised air of

surprise. ’On Carlton, yes. Carlton said we’d be on air in July 1998,

we’re going to be on air exactly as forecast last November, 30

March.



Carlton said retuning was a disaster. It isn’t. So how much credibility

does Carlton have left if even the most gullible journalist will give a

moment’s thought before taking as gospel anything Martin Bowley

says?



’I think advertisers and agencies will have been left with a slightly

unpleasant taste in their mouths about why Carlton doesn’t concentrate

on beating the BBC, which in London it has singularly failed to do,

rather than attacking someone who is actually doing something about

media inflation by reducing the cost of airtime.’



Elstein was a late guest at the Channel 5 party, having tried and failed

to get through the door twice before. Back in 1992, when Elstein was at

Thames, he was involved in the first and failed bid for the fifth

licence.



Then, when applications were invited again in 1995, Elstein - then head

of programming at Sky One - steered the bid submitted by New

Century.



Better late than never, as they say, but if it took so long to land the

job, is Elstein really the natural choice as the Channel 5 top dog?



’I thought I was the right man for the job when I put in the application

for New Century. I don’t say I’m the only person who could run Channel

5, but before I joined I was conscious I had a sufficient grasp of what

running this business required and that I would be able to do it

probably as well as anyone else around. But that may be a bit vain. I

didn’t feel daunted by it and I felt a particular attraction to it

having worked my way through the problem twice.



’I’ve been in the industry a long time. I’ve done a lot of senior

executive jobs and for the most part they’ve been viewed as reasonably

successful.



I was effectively the only senior executive in British television who

had substantial experience creatively and in production, who’d worked at

the BBC, who’d run an independent production company, who’d run a major

ITV programme division, been on the Network controller’s group and

worked in satellite and pay-TV. So, briefly and temporarily, I had

unique qualifications.’



Yet with the likes of Greg Dyke and Clive Hollick - both of whom claim a

little experience of running TV companies - breathing down his collar,

how much control does Elstein have? ’The shareholders are willing to

give me substantial benefit of the doubt. There’s nothing I’ve asked for

or recommended which they’ve demurred at.’



Elstein admits that the vision of the Channel 5 product has developed

since his arrival, particularly with the overhaul of the nightly soap:

’It had surprised me that a channel which was planning to be bright,

colourful and upbeat appeared to be committed to a rather old-fashioned

and class-bound soap’



And he insists that there will be further changes once the channel gets

to air. Despite the fear among some of his colleagues that Elstein’s

bullishness should be toned down lest he builds expectations which can’t

be met, he is willing to prepare the ground for some failures and some

overhauls.



’The live programming is going to be tweaked, there’s no question about

tweaking - probably transformed. And there are going to be one or two

shows that don’t hack it - I hope they’re not absolutely centre of the

schedule shows. But it would be unrealistic to imagine that every single

show we commission is going to be a success.



It’s never happened in the entire history of broadcasting. There will be

one or two stinkers.’



Now, as boss, Elstein has control to make changes as he sees fit. ’I had

no particular desire to leave Sky, but there is a difference between

working in a company and running a company. Here, I can exercise my own

judgment.’



But Elstein insists he’s not an ego-driven careerist. ’I’m not

unambitious, but I’m not plotting every career move as I go along. I’ve

done some not obvious things. When I was at Thames as a producer, you

certainly couldn’t have called me careerist - I was an obstreperous and

awkward enough employee never to have been promoted - I would rather

speak my mind and keep my independence of thought and make the

programmes I wanted to make than be somebody’s tool or mouthpiece. I’m

much more my own person than that.’



Which may come as a surprise to those who see Elstein as a blotting

paper soaking up the business-driven philosophies of his current

paymasters.



Elstein is positively shocked that people think this of him. ’That’s so

far from the truth that I find it quite weird. I’ve ploughed my own

furrow with sometimes quite unpopular views - like on funding the BBC

through subscription for a decade and a half before it became

fashionable - and people then accuse me of arguing it on behalf of

Rupert Murdoch.



Good grief. Or there’s my view of Channel 4, which was formed 12 years

before Channel 4 came into existence - John Birt and I drew up a

blueprint of how it should be structured in 1972 which was implemented

in 1982.’



Those who think Elstein is an irritating pontificator should blame the

BBC. ’Maybe I was very lucky at an early stage. When I joined the BBC I

was sent off to do nine months of research into the philosophy of

broadcasting.



So I’ve always felt very comfortable in the ebb and flow of argument in

terms of where everything fits. It’s never worried me that at any

particular time my views would become unpopular or unfashionable.’



He does have one core philosophy, ’which is that we’re slow to

understand change in this industry - the implications and the

opportunities of change - and we too often cling to the past, not

because there are values in the past which are in themselves

intrinsically good, but out of conservatism and fear. And I’m impatient

with that. There are maybe times when I get up people’s noses by saying

change is good for you.’



But in the spirit of embracing change, isn’t analogue terrestrial

Channel 5 an anachronism in the digital satellite era?



’There’s this feeling that suddenly everything is digital and if you’re

not digital, you’re dead in the water,’ he argues. ’But sometimes it’s

best to take the common wisdom and do the opposite. Because if

everyone’s thinking that way, they haven’t spotted something you can

see. And I can see something terribly obvious here, which is that

free-to-air, advertising-supported mass-distributed television is gold

dust. And if you can pick up a broadcast channel going to 80 per cent of

the population for pounds 22 million a year and not make a success of it,

you shouldn’t be in the business.



’All these people who are going to be struggling with channel 193 out of

200 digital channels - good luck to them with their pounds 1 million

budgets and their staff of three wondering how they’re going to schedule

the next week. This is a serious business. If there are 100,000 digital

boxes in the UK by 1998 I’ll be surprised. We’ll be in nearly 18 million

homes.



I’ve heard of hot starts but this is white hot.’



Still, Elstein confesses he may have to rethink his dismissal of digital

terrestrial television now that Granada, Carlton and BSkyB have teamed

up to bid for a licence.



’It’s going to force Channel 5 to make a more complex decision about

taking up its reserve capacity on digital terrestrial,’ Elstein

admits.



’Now the economics of DTT have moved sufficiently far forward because of

those bids for us to be able to make a sophisticated commercial

decision.



Now we have far more opportunities to use our DTT reserve capacity

simply because there’s a much greater confidence in the medium.



So in a curious way Channel 5 is better off - and if I’ve been proved to

be a poor forecaster of the virtues of DTT that’s no skin off Channel

5’s nose. I don’t have any ego in any of this.’



Ego? We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but what Elstein clearly

has is dry passion for his firmly held beliefs. Could it be that his

career is on the line with his firmly held belief in the success of

Channel 5?



’Well, if it is, it is. I don’t put a great premium on that,’ he

says.



’I’ve made enough money not to have to work. I would only do something I

enjoyed doing and if I’ve failed I’m not going to hang around. If I

never work again - at least in this industry at this level - I’ve got

plenty of books to write, and horses to back.



’It wouldn’t cause me any kind of grief. I’d be disappointed for the

people here and for the shareholders if I screwed it up, but for me ...’

and he shrugs his shoulders.



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