The news that Channel 5 retuning is going to cost the odd pounds 15m or
so more than expected will surprise no one - except perhaps for the ITC
which obviously thought its original plans were perfect. The
augmentation of the retuning teams based on the trial in Surrey may not
be the end of the matter. Just wait until the 7000 retuners in their
special security uniforms try to get into the flats of London and United
News and Pearson - the other Channel 5 investors may find themselves
putting their hands a little deeper in their pockets.
Ironically, Channel 5 now faces a very tight retuning schedule because
of an entirely laudable attempt to link the exercise with the marketing
of the channel. It might have been wiser to just get on with the
retuning and handle the marketing later.
You don’t have to subscribe to allegations of ITV dirty tricks
propaganda to wonder whether the ITC’s requirement that at least 90% of
the retuning should be satisfactorily carried out before switch on day -
January 1 - will be met.
For some unaccountable reason, other bidders for the Channel 5 licence
thought the retuning exercise would be much more difficult and much more
expensive than Channel 5 Broadcasting. But that, after all, is what the
art of writing franchise applications is all about.
In the end though, retuning is not the point. It will be done eventually
at whatever cost. The importance of Channel 5 for the media industry is
much greater than that.
It will, of course, provide advertisers with another stick to beat ITV
with, although ITV sales houses are able to provide compelling evidence
of the importance of mainstream prime-time programmes for reaching even
light up-market viewers.
Programmes stripped across the schedule also ought to increase diversity
for advertisers as well as viewers as part of a five-channel terrestrial
system. The ITC would be failing in its duty if it did not ensure that
all the worthy educational and factual programmes that helped win the
franchise actually turn up on the screen the right side of 3am.
But the real fun of Channel 5 will be to monitor the performance of what
will be the UK’s last national analogue channel, against the launch
later in 1997 of more than 200 digital channels from BSkyB. At last
there will be some pragmatic evidence to confirm or confound the views
of those who see Channel 5 as a ridiculous anachronism. And certainly it
appears ludicrous to spend pounds 70m on retuning video recorders just
to launch one television channel. BSkyB could run 175 channels for a
year or two on such a budget.
To realists the channel represents the most important new media
opportunity in the UK since Channel 4 because of its ability to get into
more homes than satellite can aspire to this side of the year 2020.
And that will apply however optimistic Channel 5’s retuning plans turn
out to be.
Raymond Snoddy is Financial Times media correspondent