RTL takes steps to boost Five's digital channels

LONDON - Five owner RTL Group, the pan-European broadcaster, is urgently targeting the "next phase" of development for its UK asset as the shutdown of analogue TV signals looms.

RTL targets next stage of development
RTL targets next stage of development

After forcing out its chief executive Jane Lighting in favour of Dawn Airey, who has been poached from ITV, where she was director of global content, RTL Group wants Airey to give Five the high profile that it has not yet managed to attain in its 11-year development and boost the performance of its digital channels.

Elsewhere within its 10 country European footprint, RTL Group's stations have been operating digital channels for several years. In some markets, such as Spain, its digital channels rank among the most-watched of all TV channels, yet in the UK Five's digital channels rarely secure above 1% viewing share.

While RTL Group has long been touted as having broader ambitions in the UK - it operates the number one broadcasters in Germany and Spain and the number two in France - it is understood that organic, and not acquisitive, growth is its focus in the UK. An RTL Group spokesman pointed to chief executive Gerhard Zeiler's plan to make Five a "vitalised, entertaining and raucous broadcaster that cannot be ignored".

Top Up TV commercial director and former Five marketing director Jim Hytner said: "A challenger brand needs a well-defined, organisational idea and an inspirational leader to do that. Dawn has Five running through her veins and will rejuvenate it and give it a sense of purpose. You wouldn't expect a chief executive to be there for more than three or four years."

RTL Group insisted that Lighting "was informed" before ITV announced that Airey was leaving her role to join Five. But Five insiders said it had come as a "shock" to Lighting, who left the broadcaster for six months' gardening leave on Friday.

She was quickly followed out by Lisa Opie, managing director of content, her former Flextech colleague, who is not expected to be replaced.

RTL Group said the "programming direction of Five will be up to Dawn when she arrives".
ITV is believed to be furious at Airey's defection after five months and is determined to hold her to the 12-month contractual notice period.

Meanwhile at Five, executive director of sales Mark White is holding the fort, taking up the chief executive role on an interim basis.

One senior broadcasting source said Lighting was not visible enough for RTL Group: "RTL was probably frustrated she didn't chuck her weight around. I am not sure what RTL wants from Five. It is competing with the heavyweights - ITV, Sky and Channel 4 - all the time, so it isn't easy to build that presence."

Airey's challenge
- Agencies are calling on Five's incoming chairman and chief executive Dawn Airey to invest in new programming to give the broadcaster a stronger identity

- Richard Oliver, managing partner of investment at Universal McCann, claimed that Five has suffered as "a direct consequence of the size of its programme budget, particularly in comparison to its terrestrial rivals"

- At £230m in 2007, Five's programming budget is about a third of that of Channel 4's 2007 programming spend

- Five owner RTL Group, the biggest commercial TV group in Europe, has given Airey the job of bringing Five's portfolio of channels into the digital age

- The refresh of the main channel, Five, and digital channel Five US will be one of the broadcaster's major challenges during the rest of the year. Five is also about to relaunch its download service as Demand Five in an attempt to catch up with rivals ITV and Channel 4, which have operated VoD services for some time

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