Dawn Airey began her second tenure as Five chief executive, pleasingly enough, with a bang, losing no time in telling staff that there would be redundancies; and following up with an announcement that Boston Consulting Group is to conduct a wide-ranging review of Five's operations.
Two sides of the same coin, as it happens. Media companies tend to bring in consultants when they want to sack people but don't really have the nerve to do the dirty themselves. Consultancy companies rarely have anything cogent to say on more complex strategic issues like possible programming philosophies or brand positioning or distribution technology options or possible diversifications and spin-offs.
And we know that Boston Consulting is rather deft when it comes to secateur work, having been asked to do a similar job on ITV's dead weight earlier this year.
The first clues to the future must be sought in our understanding of Airey's past and the small matter of her first appointment, also unveiled last week. Step forward Jeff Ford, who's joining from Channel 4 to become Five's managing director of digital channels and acquisitions.
This is as much a homecoming for Ford as it is for Airey - they worked together on Five's launch way back in 1997 and Ford stayed until 2005 (working his way up to the position of managing editor), when he left to become Channel 4's director of acquisitions. He specialises in snapping up American television's more intelligent efforts - for instance, in recent years, Ugly Betty, Desperate Housewives and My Name is Earl.
Rather handy, you might think, for Five, which earns most of its money on the back of US fodder such as CSI.
1. There is, of course, continuing speculation that Airey has been lured to the RTL-owned Five in order to front an RTL bid for ITV. The RTL chief executive, Gerhard Zeiler, has famously decreed that he expects RTL to be number one or number two in all its markets, as it is in Germany, Spain and France. It's hard to see it replicating that in the UK through organic growth at Five. But let's assume that we can take at face value Zeiler's assertion that Airey has been hired merely to "make a difference" at Five.
2. She faces no small task, especially in an era where television audiences are not only continuing to fragment, but are under threat from digital media. Following its launch in 1997, Five's share of total UK viewing climbed steadily to around the 4 per cent mark by 2000 but it hit a plateau in the 4 to 5 per cent band until early in 2004, when it consistently began to occupy the 5 to 6 per cent band. However, since 2006, the outlook has been less encouraging - its viewing share for the first half of 2008 was 5.3 per cent, though there has been an improvement so far in the second half.
3. It hasn't helped that Five has been behind its rivals in developing a family of digital channels. Fiver (it was originally called Five Life) and Five US were launched in October 2006. Viewing share for the family as a whole is around the 9 per cent mark.
4. Programming on the main channel has been through three main phases. Early on, under Airey (who was the director of programmes from 1996 to 2000 and the chief executive from 2000 to 2002), it majored in "football, films and fucking". After its relaunch in 2002, it attempted a more considered approach, scheduling more in the way of arts and documentary programming. In the last couple of years, it has focused on big-ticket imports, notably Neighbours and CSI.
5. The Five family's share of adult commercial impacts for the year to date is 10.69 per cent and its share of TV revenues for the first half of the year was around the 9 per cent mark. But with the downturn, revenues will come under severe pressure and agencies predict that, with ITV and Channel 4 both leveraging relatively strong positions, the Five family's share will decline following the current annual negotiation season. That, in turn, will put pressure on Five's programming budgets - and Zeiler may have to backtrack on promises, made in the summer, that budgets would be increased year on year.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...
- If you were a neophile with a tired taste in catchy slogans, you might be tempted, following Ford's appointment (and the not-unrelated belt-tightening at Channel 4), to voice the opinion that "Five is the new 4".
- Even if this were true, it's an irrelevance. Or it will be in the not-too-distant future. There won't be a future for a broadcaster whose central strategy is to buy in television imports from the US - or anywhere else, for that matter. We'll buy in the ones we want, thank you very much, via the next iteration of Hulu.
- Five has to start developing distinctive content of its own. Unfortunately, Airey's track record in this area is, arguably, poor. In fact, this is sometimes proposed as a reason for her departure from ITV, where she was the director of global content. ITV's executive chairman, Michael Grade, asked her to raise the amount of ITV programming made in-house. It actually began to fall under her tenure.
- Not much. In recent years, it has been all but forgotten that Five was originally set up at the behest of advertisers to provide an out-and-out commercial television channel that would counter inflationary pressures on an airtime market dominated by ITV.
- The market has obviously changed utterly since then. Back then, there were only five channels, three of them commercial. In an era when linear broadcast television is diminishing in importance, TV is cheap and advertisers currently have as much choice as they need.