Five's fighting spirit is laudable but does ithave the finance?

It's a good job the World Cup starts this week, otherwise there'd be a black hole in my TV viewing following the conclusion of Prison Break on five. Monday's double-episode climax left me gagging for the second series of another fine US acquisition by the channel, which has also brought us Hugh Laurie in House and the continued ratings success of the CSI franchise.

Despite the occasional programming hit, though, five has struggled of late. After eight years of audience growth since its launch in 1997, it suffered its first year of decline in 2005. Its programming was visibly refreshed since the Dawn Airey days of "football, films and fucking", but its audience less so. In 2006, the declines have continued - its audience share for the first five months is 5.9 per cent, down from 6.5 per cent for the same period in 2005. It is difficult for a terrestrial channel to perform well in this age of multichannel TV, yet Channel 4 has managed this with daytime fare such as Deal or No Deal.

This week, five announced a move it hopes will provide a much-needed shot in the arm - the launch of its digital platform strategy with two new channels, five US and five life, going on air in the autumn. The long-awaited announcement, the fruits of increased investment from five's parent company, RTL, following its buyout of United Business Media's minority stake in five last autumn, has generally been welcomed by the advertising community, but is it too little too late?

Five is following both Channel 4 and ITV in attempting to prevent audience erosion in the face of multichannel growth by launching free-to-air digital offerings. But much will depend on the quality of five's content.

Although RTL has proved its commitment to five through increased programme investment in the face of criticism from doubters (including this columnist), cynics wonder whether RTL will inject enough finance to make five US's mix of American television and five life's pre-school and female-oriented programming a success.

Downbeat forecasters suggest selling to ITV or merging with Flextech would have been better than investing in new channels. There is a worry that two slots on Freeview, assuming the channels offer similar content to the main five schedule, will do little to inspire media agencies to put money in five's direction. However, five has spotted that its five life channel could fill a gap on the free digital platform because women's lifestyle channels such as Living and Discovery Home & Health are currently only available on pay TV.

It is good to see five come out fighting with a proactive strategy that could at least see it maintain its position in the market - albeit at a cost estimated by some to be between £20 million and £30 million a channel.

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