Media Headliner: Five's landlady finally plays digital catch-up

The chief executive of five, Jane Lighting, is adamant the channel hasn't missed the digital boat, Darren Davidson writes.

In just over one week's time, five will belatedly enter the multi-channel market. On Sunday 15 October and Monday 16 October, it will launch two spin-off channels: five Life and five US.

Five was launched almost ten years ago as a "mainstream modern channel". Since then, its terrestrial rivals have built up a head of steam, transplanting their brands on to the digital platform. Why has it taken the UK's fifth public-service channel so long to catch up?

The chief executive of five, Jane Lighting, explains that the broadcaster was held back by the consequences of its split ownership, which have kept it at the embryonic stage of media development.

"We had to get to a point where RTL was able to buy out United Business Media. Once that was done, we were able to secure the important Freeview capacity we needed. We didn't just want to have satellite and cable coverage, we wanted universal coverage."

Five is now benefiting from sole ownership - through the Bertelsmann-owned RTL - after UBM was bought out in September last year. It was RTL which signed off £50 million in investment for the new channels. Lighting sees the role she played in freeing five from the shackles of split ownership as her greatest achievement at the channel so far. The move has clarified ownership, accelerated decision-making and paved the way for investment into a digital future.

"Without getting our shareholder situation sorted out, so much of our future strategy was hard to be clear about. It was a priority to get five into a situation where it could take a long-term view."

Clearly, UBM, which focuses on publishing trade magazines, was a major obstacle to five's ambitions, and there's a barely concealed tone of hostility towards the company when Lighting speaks of the battles which were fought over the future of the broadcaster.

On the other hand, Lighting lavishes praise on RTL, the pan-European media company. Despite five achieving the dubious honour of being one of RTL's worst performing divisions, she says the company is "incredibly supportive" of the broadcaster. Although five has outperformed a weak advertising market, profits still slumped by 29 per cent to £12 million for the year to 10 September.

"We're allowed to get on and be autonomous because of the way RTL organises its territories. But we also have the ability to swap notes and share information."

Lighting has been the head of five since June 2003. Before that, she was the chief executive of Flextech, where she was the head of five wholly owned channels, including Living, and Flextech's ten-channel BBC joint venture, UKTV.

Widespread speculation did surface about two years ago that Telewest-owned Flextech was the answer to five's digital question. But five has since forged ahead with its digital plans without Flextech. That said, Lighting does not rule out a merger between the two companies at a future point. "We'd love to acquire Flextech. It's an interesting company," she admits.

Flextech is also the company to which Lighting sold Minotaur International - her programme distribution business. This proved to be a milestone in Lighting's 25-year broadcasting career, which began at John Cleese's production company, Video Arts Television.

Lighting talks excitedly about escaping to her Devon bolthole for the weekend, where she is the owner of a successful gastro pub. Lighting is quite a contrast to her predecessor, Dawn Airey. Unlike the ubiquitous Airey, Lighting is low-key and prefers to let the programmes and schedules do the talking. She speaks in soothing, measured tones, and confidently predicts the new channels will surprise audiences.

So what can advertisers expect from the new channels? Lighting believes five has hit upon a winning strategy which advertisers can't find anywhere else. She cites the female-oriented five Life as the perfect example of this. "While five Life is an entertainment channel aimed at a female audience, we don't think it is going to be alien to their male partners. There is nothing else on Freeview which will deliver the demographic we're going to have. In terms of overall style and content of the channels, there is nothing else like it on Freeview."

The new channels will offer advertisers two distinct brands. Five Life builds on its hugely successful "Milkshake" children's programming strand, and will appeal to women towards the end of its daily schedule. Five US will specialise in US imports, in particular RTL's deal with CBS Paramount for the three CSI series - CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI Miami and, more recently, CSI New York.

While critics have blasted five for its indecision, which delayed the roll-out of its digital strategy, it would be churlish to suggest that it has missed the boat. Media buyers have given the new channels a big thumbs-up, and many have warned that smaller stations such as SciFi will suffer as a consequence of the arrival of five US.

Lighting is adamant it's not too late to play catch-up. She says: "Not at all. People talk about first-mover advantage, but there's an advantage to seeing what has worked in the past and what hasn't. It has been interesting to see which strategies have been effective and those which have sent people back to the drawing board."

Lighting is quite guarded about revenue targets for the new channels and claims they don't need to make an immediate impact.

Looking ahead, Lighting has a mischievous glint in her eyes as she tentatively reveals five is considering the possibility of another two digital channels and will be branching out into video on demand services. She argues that five's underdog spirit, which has served it so well in the past, will see it through.

"Five is a relatively small business compared to ITV and even Channel 4 for that matter. It's always been a champion. Always the last to launch. It actually gives us quite a strong fighting spirit."

With ITV and Channel 4 now firmly established on the Freeview platform, and channels such as ITV2 challenging five's terrestrial channel for viewers, let alone its digital offerings, it will need to draw on all of its strengths to see it through this latest chapter in its history.