The Numbers Game

Graham Kibble-White, Ian Jones, Steve Williams and Chris Hughes examine five’s fluctuating audience share

First published April 2007

With promises of a schedule that would pull in up to six million viewers at any one time, five arrived on our screens in 1997 fully committed to playing the numbers game. However, those numbers would quickly come to plague the channel, defining the failures and success of its first 10 years.

Here, then, is the story of five’s rising, and then falling, audience share …

During its first year, the channel was regularly scoring a zero ratings mark thanks to its daytime shows pulling in less than 100,000 viewers. Meanwhile Family Affairs was watched by an average of just 500,000 each night. Overall audience share languished in the 2 to 3% bracket. This was patently not good enough for advertisers, the channel’s image or, in particular, staff morale. The radical overhaul of output that begun in early 1998 reaped some results, with the average monthly share rising to a high of 5.1% in October 1998, falling back again over Christmas, then hitting 5.2% in April 1999.

Indeed, 1999 was a notable year for the channel, as it was the only one of the five main terrestrial networks to see its audience figures rise (from an average of 4.3% to 5.4%). This was mostly thanks to so-called “Black Wednesday” in September when C5 beat BBC1 off the back of its England vs Poland Euro 2000 qualifier, which scored a 24% share with 5.63m viewers, and helped boost that month’s share average to a record 6.3%. Director of Programmes Dawn Airey beamed, “We’re a channel that’s still in its infancy and there’s a lot of potential for growth but it’s fabulous – especially when other broadcasters are faltering.”

Still, Channel 5 always dipped by as much as a whole per cent come Christmas time; and the growth rate slowed dramatically through 2000, resulting in a new overall yearly average share of 5.7%. Crucially it was one-off shows that continued making the biggest impact – such as football match Galatasaray vs Leeds United (a 2.33m average) and Naked Jungle (2.08m). Airey herself contributed to one of 2000′s ratings winners for five, when during a live appearance on Question Time on 9 March her casual plugging for the porn then in progress on her own channel prompted a million or so BBC1 viewers to sample European Blue Review, perhaps for the first time, and also push the show’s ratings up towards 2m.

The combination of football with a film sometimes boosted audience share up to 8% – such as in November 2000 with a Liverpool UEFA Cup match and the movie Fire Down Below, while football and porn had much the same effect (a Leicester City UEFA Cup match and G-String Divas achieving another average of 8% in September 2000). In fact the scheduling of porn boosted audiences post-10.30pm by an amazing 19% in 2000, a rise equalled by, of all people, Gloria Hunniford in her early afternoon slot.

As C5 landed more premieres of big movies, so its overall evening share could often hit 8% – such as when US Marshals was screened in January 2001. But these figures were always deceptive, and depended very much upon what was being shown at the same time on other channels, and the counter-scheduling adopted by both Airey and her successor Kevin Lygo. The channel could beat both C4 and BBC2 when it wanted – such as when it showed Goodfellas in February 2001 – but often only if the alternatives were fairly niche. Still, on 19 February 2001 C5′s Beachcomber Bay beat The Big Breakfast by a 1% share.

A new record of sorts was set in March 2001, when England’s World Cup qualifier against Albania lifted the channel way above BBC1 – averaging 5.59m viewers, although at one point apparently up to 8m were tuning in. The 24% audience share was more than four times Five’s norm. When Home and Away returned in July it also took the early evening audience up to double the usual at 13%, beating C4 in the process. In August came victory over C4 twice in the same week thanks to football, and again in October when it also had a 0.5% lead over C4 across all hours at one day. In November, meanwhile, Channel 5 had its first live head-to-head victory over the BBC, competing against BBC2 with separate European football matches.

For a long time none of the other four terrestrial channels demonstrably scheduled against C5; it was simply unnecessary, and could be interpreted as an example of insecurity. Nonetheless on its fifth birthday, the channel benefited from the revised BARB system for collecting ratings, with its ABC1 audience suddenly up by almost 11% and its average share standing at 6.5%.

Following Kevin Lygo’s return to C4 in 2003, and a rebranding as simply “five”, the channel’s share then entered a period of long decline – a situation the current regime are still trying to arrest.

The signs, however, initially looked good, as new broom Dan Chambers’ first year resulted in an audience share increase of 3%. Buoyant at his success, he defined the channel’s identity bravely, if vaguely, as being “somewhere between Channel 4 and ITV”. With the big film premieres in the main a thing of the past, targeting niche viewers seemed to be the way ahead. “When Coronation Street is on, soap-watchers will be watching,” he said, “so we can put on technology programmes for young men. In a commercial sense, we pick off those who are not served by [mainstream] shows and give them something different”.

Part of the initiative involved commissioning more highbrow fare, fronted by intellects such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and Susan Greenfield. “We are looking at an upmarket audience,” he explained. “It’s not about viewing figures. Increasingly what’s happening with advertisers is that they like to be able to target specific groups. It makes commercial sense [that phrase again] to have more focussed programmes”.

Nevertheless, the temptation to produce out-and-out hits was hard to succumb. Reality show, The Farm, could arguably have been a smash on C4, but on five the series floundered. Despite the furore over Rebecca Loo’s porcine encounter, it rarely topped a million. When five acquired Friends spin-off, Joey, for an alleged £500,000 per episode, few could have doubted it was money well spent. The series started well with 4.53m tuning in to the first of a double-bill of episodes in February 2005 – making it the channel’s eighth most-watched programme to date. However, when 300,000 switched off between the first and second, the portents were gloomy. Indeed, ratings dropped to between one and two million as the series unfolded. For one edition, on 3 July 2005, a derisory 827,000 tuned in, meaning the channel was spending over 60p per viewer.

After seven successive years of audience growth, 2005 marked an unhappy turning point – particularly for Chambers – as five’s share began to decrease. The following year saw further loss, averaging out as an overall 5.7% slice of the viewing public. It made five proportionately the worst performing UK terrestrial channel that year. This was a huge turn-around from the triumphant days of 1999.

Nothing, it seemed worked any more. Chambers axed Family Affairs, only to fail in his efforts to find anything that would match its viewing figures in the early evening slot. Prestigious US acquisitions like House and Everybody Hates Chris delighted critics but didn’t find huge followings. Only CSI: Crime Scene Investigation performed, peaking with audiences of over 4m. Meanwhile, homegrown efforts such as Perfect Day and Suburban Shootout were also critically well-received – but presented a poor return for the channel’s financial investment when it came to bums on seats.

Naturally, five panicked and, in October 2006, brought in Lisa Opie above Chambers as the new Managing Director of Content – a move which forced his resignation. Although great play was made of the channel’s success in quality programming, in reality all eyes were on the numbers.

With poor ratings still an issue, on the eve of five’s 10th birthday, Opie declared: “Five culturally is a really upbeat and positive place. Of course, it’s not as easy when your ratings are not going in the right direction. We need to be persistent and tenacious and everybody is up for that”.

So what have we learned, this last 10 years? As the list below of five’s 20 most-watched programmes reveals, when it comes to the ratings game, the normal rules just don’t apply to the channel. It’s the only terrestrial broadcaster unable to get home-grown soaps, sitcoms, dramas and light entertainment/reality productions into its own top 20. Instead, successes are drawn from a scattershot selection of one-off films and sporting events. The problem here is that these are, by definition, unrepeatable. They don’t build into any sustained strand of programming. An England qualifier can only be followed up by another England qualifier.

Nevertheless, it is true that high audience figures can sometimes bleed into other shows positioned alongside in the schedules – but is a one-off audience of 4.13m for the five-minute Five News Update that preceded a 2004 screening of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines really doing anyone any favours?

If five is to build viewers, it has to create replicable programming types. A heavy reliance on CSI is not a healthy state of affairs for any channel. But then, the problem is, who’s ever going to turn to five in search of sitcoms, soaps and Saturday night entertainment? Culturally, we look elsewhere.

It’s a difficult circle to square, and while Opie’s regime make noises of creating a sports magazine programme – presumably to capitalize on what few sporting scoops the channel is still able to get – it seems five is further away than ever of finally making good on that opening night promise of bagging six million viewers.


1. Euro 2000 Qualifier (England vs Poland), 08/09/1999, 5.63m – 24% share
2. World Cup Qualifier (Albania vs England), 28/03/2001, 5.59m – 24% share
3. Independence Day (film), 07/09/1999, 5.40m – 26% share
4. The Rock (film), 08/02/2000, 5.05m – 24% share
5. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (film), 14/11/2004, 4.94m – 19.7% share
6. Miracle on 34th Street (film), 07/12/03, 4.85m – 19.6% share
7. UEFA Cup (Celtic vs Liverpool), 13/03/2003, 4.61m – 18.4% share
8. Joey (US sitcom), 13/02/2005, 4.53m – 17.1% share
9. Euro 2000 Qualifier (Bulgaria vs England), 09/06/1999, 4.51m – 27% share
10. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (US drama), 31/01/2006, 4.49m – 18.8% share
11. Euro 2000 Qualifier (Luxemburg vs England), 14/10/1998, 4.38m – 18% share
12. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (US drama), 07/02/2006, 4.37m – 18.8% share
13. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (film), 24/07/2005, 4.32m – 21.7%
14. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (US drama), 19/07/2005, 4.32m – 21.4%
15. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (US drama), 14/02/2006, 4.26m – 18.5%
16. Erin Brockovich (film), 10/03/2003, 4.26m – 20.9% share
17. Gladiator (film), 19/10/2003, 4.25m – 20.9% share
18. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (US drama), 22/03/2005, 4.22m – 18.7% share
19. Joey (US sitcom), 13/02/2005, 4.22m – 16.5% share
20. Miracle on 34th Street (film), 05/12/2004, 4.20m – 17.5% share