Feature

Five at ten

Renowned for its inventive marketing and innovative content, yet dogged by coverage constraints, five's decade on air has been far more than 'films, fucking and football'.

Channel 5 launched at 6pm on 30 March 1997. The fifth terrestrial channel was an Easter present opened for the public by the Spice Girls bouncing around a brightly coloured set in a bid to give physical form to the channel's stated intention of offering exuberant, family oriented entertainment.

After half an hour of Spiced build-up, viewers were hit at 6.30pm by the first episode of Family Affairs, Channel 5's long-running soap opera.

Family Affairs, the first modern soap to run five days a week in the UK, was among several firsts established by the channel. It was also the first terrestrial station to launch with a 24-hour schedule and the first to launch into the new multichannel landscape.

Fittingly, the first ad to run on the station was for Chanel No 5. Kellogg, which made great play of also being around for the launch of ITV and Channel 4, appeared in the first ad break with a spot specially shot for the launch night.

Channel 5's difficult birth (its problems with achieving coverage in UK households became legendary) was a long time coming. In 1990, the new Broadcasting Act had offered the possibility of a fifth terrestrial TV licence. However, in 2002, Thames Television, which was the sole bidder, had its bid to launch a fifth channel rejected.

Then, in 1995, the process was reignited with the Independent Television Commission declaring: "The programmes to be included in the service must be of high quality and appeal to a wide variety of tastes and interests."

Later that year, the winning bidder from four competing groups emerged as Channel 5 Broadcasting. Its shareholders were United News & Media (led by Lord Hollick), CLT-UFA (later RTL), Pearson (a certain Greg Dyke was the chief executive of its operation at that time) and the investment company Warburg Pincus & Co.

A management team was swiftly put in place, led by the chief executive, David Elstein - a man supposedly so bright he had earned the nickname "Two Brains" and who had previously held senior positions at Thames Television and BSkyB. Dawn Airey was poached from Channel 4 as the director of programmes. Nick Milligan, the sales chief of UK Gold and UK Living, was appointed as the sales director. Jim Hytner joined from BSkyB as Channel 5's first marketing director some months later.

It was to be the marketing activity around Channel 5, as well as its struggles to get the nation tuned to the station, that made it immediately famous. An identity, created by Wolff Olins, and advertising, which was the first work to come out of Mother, created a bright, clear positioning for the station that punched above the reality of its spend.

Channel 5's commercial appeal was less clear. Its commercial team knew there would be a market, but was unsure of how big it would be. The team felt it could eventually take the channel as high as 10 per cent of commercial impacts, but could offer no real guarantee of that to shareholders. It hoped that agencies would buy into the channel because of good relationships with its sales team and pushed the idea that the launch would provide more competition to help drive down rampant TV inflation.

Elstein was the senior figure at Channel 5, and it was he who took charge of the difficulty it was facing in gaining 60 per cent coverage of UK households by signing a deal to be carried on satellite. Described by one member of the founding team as "an exceptional chief executive; a great guiding hand", he was also instrumental in keeping the shareholders on board as the costs of retuning the nation to Channel 5 spiralled.

As for the rest of the team, it was the last chance to be involved in launching a free-to-air analogue channel. The prospect was exciting and the aim was to try to do something different. Airey says that she had always intended the station to be irreverent: "There was this idea that we were supposed to add to the artistic and cultural life of broadcasting, but that sounded to me like the BBC. Especially as we had less than 50 per cent coverage and a programming budget of £70 million. We had to be different in a very positive way or significantly better than the other broadcasters. When we got it right, we were spectacularly good, and when we got it wrong, we were very bad."

From the start, Channel 5's team saw itself as slightly anti-establishment. It had small, tight offices on Long Acre, packed with 200 "bright young things". The atmosphere was described by those who worked there from launch as being like a constant party, with many people there having worked together for years previously. Milligan, for instance, brought a 26-strong commercial team, lock, stock and barrel, from UK Gold.

While it was the buzz and marketing that many remember (Hytner is given special credit for some of the firsts he pulled off, such as perimeter ads at football matches screened on the BBC urging viewers to switch to Channel 5's coverage), Airey admits that it was harder to get the content right.

Channel 5 was positioned as a modern, mainstream channel, with its big innovation being a schedule that offered genres at regular times, such as films at 9pm. Airey says she is most proud of its attempts to position its news differently to other channels. It partially succeeded with the then 27-year-old Kirsty Young becoming the face of the channel. Rival broadcasters, which mainly used middle-aged men behind desks, were drawn into arguments over the merits of Young's "perching" on the edge of her desk to read the news.

Other early shows that stood out included the Entertainment showbiz programme, House Doctor (which remains in the schedules to this day) and the entertainment shows Night Fever, a Saturday-night celebrity karaoke contest hosted by Suggs, and Fort Boyard. Later, in 2001, it would buy the rights for the Aussie soap Home and Away in a bid to acquire a slightly younger audience.

Airey became famous for her 1999 remark that Channel 5 was all about "films, fucking and football". Films always formed part of the schedule; rights to live football also delivered strong audiences for the station (England v Albania in 2001 pulled in a peak audience of eight million); and the adult programming became increasingly vital (although Airey now says it never accounted for more than 2 per cent of total output). And she's happy to put the record straight on that infamous comment: "The quote actually read: 'Some would say Channel 5 is all about films, fucking and football, but it's about a whole lot more.' But it's good to be famous for something."

The station's infamy for adult programming reached a peak in 2000 with the screening of Naked Jungle, which was billed as a "gameshow for naturists" and featured Keith Chegwin, as its host, and several contestants stark naked. Although the Independent Television Commission said it received just one complaint, the show attracted obligatory consternation from the Daily Mail and those bemoaning the moral state of the nation. As Airey says now: "Who'd have thought Keith Chegwin's knob would cause so much disquiet in broadcasting circles and on the floor of the House of Commons?"

It was during the early part of this decade that Channel 5, rebranded as five in 2002, hit its stride commercially. By the end of 2002, it had built an 11 per cent share of adult viewing during commercial breaks, a level it maintained until 2006 when its share finally slid. Part of this growth was on the back of an impressive US acquisitions strategy, which brought CSI, among other shows, to UK screens. CSI, along with later acquisitions such as House, was to prove a hit with UK audiences and gave five a solid peaktime audience base.

Five turned its first profit by the end of 2004, but it still had some big issues to face. Not least how to grow its audience when it had no multichannel offering. Rivals such as ITV and Channel 4 were well advanced on their own multichannel strategies, while five, hampered by divisions among its two remaining shareholders - the German broadcaster RTL and Hollick's UBM (formerly UNM) - had yet to launch any spin-offs. Its management had previously believed there was a clear strategy to solve the ownership issue. As Milligan puts it: "Dawn (Airey) and I always believed that the shareholders had a masterplan and that ITV or Sky would be the ultimate owners."

This scenario would have provided a nice return for shareholders and the chance for Sky or ITV to buy a brand to add to their multichannel portfolio. But the deal never happened - with some suggesting that Hollick's price was too high for potential bidders. Eventually, the ownership issue was settled when UBM sold its 35 per cent stake to RTL in July 2005. This made running the broadcaster more straightforward for the new chief executive, Jane Lighting, the former Flextech chief executive, who had replaced Airey in early 2004.

Lighting says: "The multichannel plans had been complicated because the shareholders were not agreed on investment ideas. RTL was a long-term investor with digital families across Europe, while UBM was more concerned about maintaining and building profit. It was not a long-term player, and the fact that RTL bought it out made the vision happen; only then could we move on the multichannel plans."

With this resolved, what was Lighting's vision for five? "I thought I could bring two things - knowledge of multichannel because it was clear that five needed a multichannel strategy, and I also thought I could take it to the next stage of evolution - to make it a more mature broadcaster," she says. "The task was to broaden it, to take it further away from some of the specifics it was known for, such as movies and football. That work had been started long before I was there: for instance, I didn't invent children's programming at five, but it was about building on that."

Five eventually launched its digital channels - five US and five life - in October last year, and hopes they will grow its advertising share after a tricky 2006 (so far they have added just 0.3 per cent to five's share of impacts). There are no immediate plans for further digital channel launches, but Lighting doesn't rule it out.

Otherwise, five remains committed to children's programming, despite increased restrictions on food advertising to children. While it's dropping its Shake strand (aimed at older children), the daily Milkshake programming will remain in place.

Critics accuse five of having lost some of its early energy and joie de vivre, arguing that it has become "boring" and has gone too far in injecting serious documentary programming into its peaktime schedule. Lighting refutes this and is a big supporter of its factual programming (its Extraordinary People show is one of her personal favourites). However, there is little doubt that five recognises the need for more energy and innovation in its schedule, and Lighting recently hired Lisa Opie as the managing director of content, a move that coincided with the director of programmes, Dan Chambers, leaving the company. Earlier this month, Opie made a speech to the Royal Television Society outlining five's ambition to "let people in; be bold; be populist; be personal".

Lighting adds: "It is about being bold and being innovative; when there is a lot of competition in the marketplace, it's easy to play it safe, so in terms of the tone of voice and the way we schedule things, some of that is about being bold. But it's about being bold, not controversial or outrageous, and it's about being a populist, commercially relevant channel. We are a broad channel with sports, arts, factual and niche programming."

Advertisers will applaud five's attempts to retain its commercial relevance in a highly competitive world, but are worried about declines in its main channel's audience share. But for the time being: happy birthday five, the past ten years certainly haven't been dull.

FIVE TIMELINE

30 March 1997: Channel 5 launches under its chief executive, David Elstein. The core management team includes the director of programmes, Dawn Airey, the sales director, Nick Milligan, and the marketing director, Jim Hytner.

February 2000: Carat pulls all its clients off Channel 5 after a dispute over rates - the first time an agency has taken such a move against a UK broadcaster. Milligan responds with his infamous "There's too much stick, not enough Carat" quote in Campaign.

October 2000: Elstein steps down from his role as chief executive. Airey succeeds him and says she wants to improve the quality of programming in peaktime.

September 2002: Channel 5 rebrands as five. Airey leaves to become the managing director of Sky Networks. Milligan is installed as the acting chief executive.

February 2003: Jane Lighting, the chief executive of Flextech, is appointed as five's third chief executive.

February 2004: Milligan resigns to join Sky Media as the managing director. The top commercial posts go to Mark White and Kelly Williams, the executive sales director and the sales director respectively.

July 2005: Lord Hollick's United Business Media sells its 35 per cent stake in five to the majority shareholder, RTL, for £247.6 million. Observers predict that this will lead to greater investment in five from RTL.

October 2006: After a long wait, five finally unveils its multichannel strategy with the launch of two new channels, five life and five US.

PROGRAMMING HIGHLIGHTS

- The first C5 idents

Although five has tried to position itself differently to fellow terrestrial channels, its colourful and quirky brand image has helped influence the behaviour of rivals.

- Spice Girls launch

Regarded as an apt manifestation of the channel's offering, the pop group, at the height of its powers, introduced the public to Channel 5 in 1997.

- Family Affairs

Five's long-running soap was the first in recent times to run five days a week in the UK. The show, which kicked off the 1997 launch night, signed off in 2005.

- Five News

Kirsty Young read the news, then became the news, as the glamorous Scot's style of "perching" on the edge of her desk helped change the stuffy image of newscasters.

- Touch the Truck

Five attempted to justify its reputation for the irreverent with a show that challenged contestants to remain in contact with a truck for as long as possible.

- CSI Vegas

Five has brought a host of popular US series to UK screens, including Prison Break and CSI, the seventh series of which, Vegas, is currently shown on Tuesday nights.

- Home and Away

The broadcaster sprung something of a coup in 2001 when it bought the rights to the Australian soap, which formerly ran on ITV, in order to attract a younger audience.