Media Forum: Does Five's future look grim?

Has Digital Britain damaged its long-term prospects, Alasdair Reid asks.

Those of us who believed a bunch of government hacks, however talented, could lead the media industry into a sunny economic upland via a post-modern take on the Stalinist Five-Year Plan were always going to be disappointed by the publication of Digital Britain.

The rest of the industry, particularly those in the country's privately owned commercial media companies, will take note of its provisions, however vague, and resolve to keep muddling along.

Short of recommending that all media be taken into public ownership (and we may get there yet), Lord Stephen Carter's grand opus was always going to boil down to a desire to tinker a bit around the edges of the television licence fee. And resolve, along the way, to tidy up the structure of the state's two wholly owned broadcast institutions, the BBC and Channel 4.

One media owner, however, had perhaps more to lose than any other - and, in that sense, must be feeling extra disappointment. Since last autumn, when deteriorating market conditions began to bite, Five's preferred long-term strategy has been to engineer a merger with a privatised Channel 4.

Carter's Digital Britain report would appear to knock that one on the head - arguing that Channel 4 should be subsumed in some sort of a way (the practical details are rather less than convincing at this stage) into the BBC empire.

Which must have been greeted with a terrible sinking feeling at Five. Back in April, let's not forget, Thomas Rabe, the chief financial officer of Five's ultimate owner, Bertelsmann, admitted to financial analysts that Five's current status was "not sustainable" in prevailing market conditions.

True, its chief executive, Dawn Airey, sought in an internal e-mail to reassure staff that the owners were actually as committed to the channel as they'd ever been. And it's also true that Five is pushing ahead with the sorts of strategic initiatives - such as preparing for high-definition television transmission - that only a serious long-term player would contemplate.

But still. The future surely now looks bleak. Nonsense, Mark White, Five's managing director, responds. The company can now get on with the job that Airey was brought in to do - to put the fun back into Five and recover its vitality as a challenger brand. He adds: "That's not to say we wouldn't explore other areas of consolidation in the future. But our parent company is not about to pick up its ball and go home. Never underestimate the deep pockets of the biggest commercial TV company in Europe, nor its commitment to remaining a long-term player in one of the largest TV markets in the world."

And consolidation is inevitable, Andy Bolden, the European media director of GlaxoSmithKline, asserts. He says: "About three months ago, our assessment was that the TV landscape would have to change. Well, nothing has happened yet. I suppose people are waiting for something to kick-start the process and this report is another factor. And, yes, you could argue that Five's future looks precarious - but there are concerns about other channels too."

Five seems to be suffering disproportionately, Phil Georgiadis, the chief executive of Walker Media, says. The market still uses a trading system that, for historical reasons, doesn't always match audience performance to ad revenue share - but perhaps Five has to accept this and determine to take a long view. "If it can weather the worst of this storm, I believe it still has a valuable place in the market," he says.

Jim McDonald, MPG's head of broadcast, argues that, from a public perception point of view, commercial television channels such as Five are still well placed. He says: "The public likes what it gets across the board from commercial TV. The commercial sector is just suffering because the market (in terms of commercial impacts) is over-supplied. But I believe Five's owners will continue to be supportive. I don't think there's any reason to fear it won't be around next year."

NO - Mark White, managing director, Five

"We deliver big terrestrial audiences at a fraction of the price of ITV1 and Channel 4. Perhaps we need to shout louder about the fact that in a number of key peaktime slots, we wipe the floor with the commercial competition."

MAYBE - Andy Bolden, European media director, GlaxoSmithKline

"Our assessment is still that the TV landscape will inevitably have to change ... I'm not sure that what Five offers in the mid-TVR range can't be got by buying other channels."

NO - Phil Georgiadis, chief executive, Walker Media

"The current agency trading environment fails to reward the relative contribution it makes to a schedule. Five's programme average rating should, in a less rigged market, deliver more revenue to its shareholders."

NO - Jim McDonald, head of broadcast, MPG

"Emotionally, I think the management at Five had hung their hat on a Channel 4 deal - but, equally, I tend to believe that its owners will continue to be supportive. If you ask me whether I'm hopeful about a good outcome for Five, then, yes, of course I am. You have to be."

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