Part Four

Steve Williams takes on Channel 5

First published August 2001

I had the following wild cards

1. RTL issue orders that major savings must be made across all budgets.  How wold you implement cuts while maximising audience share?

After looking through my schedule, I felt that I would first attempt to make cuts in the off-peak parts of the schedule. I would start showing repeats and animations during my weekday children’s strand instead of my projected all-new programming. I’d replace the live 5-branded presentation of my late night US sport by using the original coverage supplied by the host broadcasters. In my entertainment slot at 7pm I’d also start running repeats and, if budgets really had to be cut, imported entertainment programmes that I was currently running on a Saturday night.

2. Prince Philip dies.

I asked for more clarification as to the cause of death, and was informed that he died “of old age, overnight”. I said that if it was becoming obvious that he was nearing death, we’d already have switched to an “emergency” schedule of extended news bulletins when it became clear that this was a very serious situation. If he died overnight, I’d run a special news programme the following morning, until lunchtime. I’d drop Chat with Cheggers in the afternoon – as I’d already pointed out that it was to be a fairly light-hearted series – but probably stick with Gloria Hunniford at 2.30pm. Then I’d show an appropriate film at 4pm (hopefully the films in this strand would all be suitable for this situation anyway), and probably stick with my two soaps. Then I’d run an extended news and tribute programme from 7pm until 9pm.

I was asked if C5 would show the funeral. Taking precedent from the death of Diana, I decided that they would. I was asked if it was worth showing, but I felt that the audience available would be tiny, and a “feisty” C5 would probably seem out of place opposite it; I wouldn’t have liked to have shown Beverly Hills 90210 or Nash Bridges opposite the funeral, certainly.

3. Melinda Messenger is revealed as a drug addict.

This was a trickier one to answer. I decided that it all depended on the scale of her addiction, but if it was very serious, I’d drop her late-night series and produce a new programme in it’s place. C5 would also encourage her to seek rehab, and it could even be the case that Melinda could front documentaries about dealing with addictions. A rejected wildcard saw Melinda developing a serious illness, and without wishing to be flippant, this could have been easier to deal with, as she could have left the channel on better terms; in that situation I’d have kept her late night series running with a different presenter to allow her to return when she had recovered, and, depending on the nature of the illness, asked if we could follow her treatment and make some informative programmes on the subject.

4. Channel 5 hires Noel Edmonds and has to find tow primetime vehicles for him.

As the channel that also employs Cheggers, my initial response was to take a look at the “ironic Swap Shop revival” that Noel’s been going on about for the last few years. However, I thought this would be a hugely self-indulgent mess, so instead I thought he could present a quiz programme for us – the return of Telly Addicts, maybe? He could also take over as presenter of Greed now Jerry Springer had another format.

After hearing the schedules of the other channels, I made a few basic changes to the line-up. Learning that Richard Bacon was up for grabs, I did a swap with Channel 4 where they finally got the rights to Dappledown Farm. I hadn’t anticipated this programme being such a hot property. I replaced Brian Cant with the animated series Powerpuff Girls, which C5 already had in its coffers. This still left 90 minutes of new children’s programmes a day, and made a nice contrast with the other programmes, as I’d been concerned that the four programmes scheduled in the Milkshake strand were a little similar.

I decided to use Richard Bacon to front What’s The Story?, my current affairs strand, as I felt he embodied the cheeky, slightly tabloid air that I wanted to encourage on that programme. I felt he was very witty and intelligent, and fitted in well on the channel. I also offloaded some unwanted sports coverage onto ITV and did a deal to allow them to cover an hour of Ice Hockey each week.

I made sure that I brought back The Mole, and as BBC1 were scheduling a similar “looking forward to the weekend” programme to my Watch Out Weekend at 7pm on a Friday, I decided to do a deal with them. I said that I’d drop my programme if they’d give me someone to present The Mole. Therefore, a new Ulrika Jonsson-fronted series of The Mole was provisionally scheduled at 7pm on Fridays. Later, however, I was concerned that there was a glut of this type of “reality” show on a Friday evening, with BBC2′s Escape (based on the Jailbreak format bought from Channel 5, of course) at 8pm, and C4′s Wanted at 9pm, so I swapped it with Desert Forges. Thus The Mole now went out at 7pm on Mondays, with Desert Forges on Fridays.

(Had I created this schedule a week later, I probably wouldn’t have found space for Desert Forges in my peaktime line-up given that Channel 5 then moved this series on Saturdays from 7pm to a rather less prestigious slot of 10am. I was unaware that it was doing quite so badly.)

My final act was to move The Pepsi Chart as I was concerned that it was too similar to BBC1′s Inside TOTP at the same time on Wednesdays. Thus The Pepsi Chart and That Seventies Show filled the 7pm entertainment strand on a Tuesday, with Greed shifting to Wednesdays.

It was then time to face the wrath of the regulators. I listened to the general criticism of all the channels; there should have been more minorities in the schedules. I aimed to carry out some positive discrimination when hiring presenters for programmes like Milkshake and Wideworld. The stripping on other channels was considered a bad thing, but I thought that my channel had been clear in it’s intentions to strip programmes from day one, and the peak time line-up was substantially different each day.

So what of the specific criticisms from the regulators? The basic response was, er, there weren’t particularly any because they, like the rest of us, seemed unsure as to what Channel 5 should and shouldn’t be doing. Although this was a relief, in that I didn’t have to make many changes to my schedule, it did once more demonstrate the major problem with Channel 5 – it seems to have little impact on viewers who simply don’t see the point of the channel.

My schedule was an attempt to freshen up the channel’s mundane and often perverse scheduling, and make it clear to the audience what was on Channel 5, and when. The day-to-day scheduling was the thing that I concentrated on most of all, as I felt that, by and large, Channel 5 doesn’t have many programmes that stand out in TV listings, or have a week-in week-out smash hit that guarantees an audience. Only the recent acquisition of Home and Away seems to have addressed this problem, being a major draw for a good audience. The rest of the time, Channel 5 seems to be there purely to be watched if the viewer doesn’t like what’s on the other channels. So in my schedule we say “Here is where you can find the films, the drama, the entertainment” and so on, and trust the viewer to come and find us.

But is my new Channel 5 the sort of channel I’d like to watch? I’ve already said that the length of time I watch C5 in an average (i.e., non-football) week is negligible. And, despite my scheduling, this would probably still be the case. The problem is, I like to watch new, innovative comedy, documentaries and unusual drama – programmes that don’t really have a home on Channel 5. My schedule was an attempt to take the current C5 schedule and freshen it up, and I think the evening, particularly, is more attractive than the current badly scheduled line-up of crappy imports and sub-par docusoaps. But I’m not particularly interested in game shows, US drama or most films, so the whole line-up for me lacks anything particularly striking. I might watch my factual hour, with the news at a convenient slot, and perhaps What’s The Story? if it was sufficiently different from other current affairs series. If I stayed up late I might catch Melinda, but that’s about it. Basically, I think my Channel 5 schedule is a decent line-up for Channel 5, but not a decent line-up for any other channel.

During the scheduling summit, we wondered if the channels we’d dealt with would still exist in the new digital age. ITV seems certain to last – it has some of the most popular programmes on television, and we felt sure that there would still be an appetite for amiable, mass market entertainment. To a lesser extent, BBC1′s future seems secure, if it remains the flagship channel of the BBC and sees a constant stream of exciting programmes. Channel 4′s status as a lively, interesting channel with a remit to innovate looks set to see the new chief executive fare pretty well, even if they don’t use a schedule quite as attractive (to the “six people round the table” at least) as the OTT scheduler came up with. If BBC2 becomes more aware of its position in the new BBC digital line-up, this too should remain one of the channels viewers will check when they’re planning their evening’s viewing. But what of Channel 5? Will this channel be able to punch its weight as one of several dozen, or will it become a stablemate of channels like Granada Plus, UK Gold or UK Horizons; flicked through in search of something to watch but hardly a big hitter?

Unfortunately, all signs point to the latter. Why does the average viewer watch Channel 5? The most obvious answer at the moment seems to be Home and Away. After that, though, what are their “big draws”? A look at the top 10 ratings would suggest they’re the films, imports and porn. To me, these do not seem the sort of programmes that will make a channel stand out from the crowd – there are dozens of digital channels that show the same sort of thing, and they’re entirely devoted to the genres. Would a viewer stick with a rotten film full of adverts and edits on C5 when they can get a bigger range of uncut, uninterrupted movies on channels like Sky Premier or Carlton Cinema? Would they stick with C5′s imports when Sky One have a bigger, newer, better selection? Would they be happy with an hour of porn a week when other channels fling out as much as taste allows? It seems unlikely.

Channel 5 heads towards it’s fifth birthday with, seemingly, even less point than it began with. A new schedule would perhaps arrest that decline, but I feel that when digital television becomes the norm in the majority of Britain’s homes, Channel 5 will become an irrelevance for most of the population, like it’s an irrelevance for me now.

<Part Three