MEDIA PERSPECTIVE: Channel 5 needs a cash injection if it's going to compete

As David Elstein packed up his pencils last week, he could look back on his three years as the chief executive of Channel 5 as a success against the odds. He stepped in when the original chief executive was ousted, got the channel to air without buggering up the nation's video recorders and negotiated a couple of extra frequencies so we could actually see the darn thing.

All in all, it's not bad going, although you do wonder what Elstein's been doing with his other brain all this time. Elstein's ousting is the play of politics rather than performance. Channel 5's new majority owner, RTL, is just rolling up its sleeves over the challenge and Elstein - not known for his subtlety, sensitivity or, indeed, for his diplomacy - left amid boardroom tensions and rumours of a frosty relationship with Richard Eyre, RTL's director of strategy.

So Dawn Airey is promoted from the programme director to the chief executive and the sales director, Nick Milligan, takes over as her deputy. Not, perhaps, the most radical of appointments, but both have worked hard to get Channel 5 this far. There's no doubt that, living hand to mouth as it has been, the channel's spunky programming schedule and innovative (or desperate, if we're being ungenerous) approach to revenue generation have made waves. But they have also made what could have been a piece of tat into a 9 per cent share of the TV audience. Which may say more about the viewing public than we care to know, but whatever you think of the programme line-up (and Keith Chegwin's willy will not have been to everyone's taste) or of the channel's sales team, the new board structure looks truer to the channel's spirit.

You could never imagine Elstein sitting down in his slippers on a Sunday night watching European Blue Review; Airey would be cheering 'get 'em off' with the rest of us. And Milligan has a passion for his task that is quite rare among his TV sales peers. But by empowering Airey and her new deputy, RTL has not even begun to tackle the real challenge.

For all Channel 5's modest success, the opportunities enshrined in holding the fifth terrestrial TV channel have barely been exploited, and that's nothing short of a disgrace. Not surprisingly, it all comes down to money: money to buy appointment-to-view shows; money to launch a proper marketing campaign instead of the tatty press and poster blitz that is now running.

The crude creative treatment may suit the cheap and cheerful spirit of the station but it's hardly brand-building stuff.

Digital TV is becoming ubiquitous and with it Channel 5's chances of establishing an enduring brand are being eroded. The best thing RTL can do for Channel 5 is give it more money, making a serious investment that the channel can use to build a constituency before it's too late. Paying Elstein pounds 3 million to go must only be the start.

claire.beale@haynet.com.





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