Channel 5: An Overview

By Graham Kibble-White

First published April 2000

In the ’80s, advertisers went in to see the government about getting advertising on the BBC so it would bring the cost of TV advertising down. What they came out with was a sop and it’s called Channel 5.” So said Mike Gorman media director of Saatchi and Saatchi.

Channel 5, our newest and probably last, analogue terrestrial network had a long gestation period. The ITC had originally invited applications for the Channel 5 license back in 1992, however only one application was received at the time and was considered unviable. In November 1994 the license was re-advertised, and out of four applications made, the Channel 5 we know today was borne. The DTI then granted it an additional UHF channel for broadcasting, which delayed the operation. When it finally hit our screens at 6pm on Sunday 30 March 1997 it was arguably the most sceptically regarded TV launch ever in the UK.

What was C5 for? From The Independent, 29 March 1997: “Channel 5 exists because advertisers wanted it, not because viewers were asking for another channel. In the mid-’80s the ITV monopoly was the only place advertisers could get access to commercial TV and they were paying high prices. They lobbied the Government and in 1986 it set technicians the task of finding a frequency that could be used for a new commercial channel.”

Backing the channel was a conglomerate of business interests with Pearson, United News & Media and CLT – the main investors (collectively holding an 82% share) and committed to spending £150 million on the retuning of televisions and video recorders across the country (Greg Dyke dubbed the initiative the “Burglar’s Charter”) in readiness for C5. Some sources had it that upon launch day 90% of the populace was able to receive C5 on the UHF channels 35 and 37. Aside from also spending £22 million in securing their license, and £5 million on advertising, C5 began with an annual programming budget of £110 million, about a sixth of the amount ITV spends on its network programming. So who was to run this cheap and cheerful outfit?

David Elstein was brought in as Chief Executive Officer of Channel 5 Broadcasting from BSkyB where he’d been head of programming, whilst Dawn Airey was made Controller of Programming. Previously she had been the Controller of Arts and Entertainment at Channel 4. It was Airey particularly, who coined the phrase “modern and mainstream” as the mission statement for C5. Unlike TV-am’s infamous “mission to explain”, Airey’s version remained sufficiently ill defined, lest it was to become a liability later.

As continuity announcer David Vickery intoned, “Welcome. It is 6 o’clock on Sunday 30 March, and this is 5,” C5 hoped that during the course of its opening night it would capture a culmination of 6 million viewers. The initial schedule appears rather alien in comparison to C5 almost exactly three years on. Family Affairs was the nub of the evening and still persists now although in quite a different incarnation, however we also had a political study of John Major and Tony Blair (Two Little Boys) an hour-long original comedy drama (Hospital!) and a C5-produced TV drama (Beyond Fear). The Jack Docherty Show was to be the other mainstay of the channel, but this gradually faltered and has since disappeared. On opening night C5 peaked at 2.5 million, thus ensuring Elstein attained more than the 5% share he was hoping to ensnare.

Where C5 certainly was fulfilling its “modern and mainstream” mantra was in its scheduling. C5 brought the US concept of stripped-scheduling to Britain, wherein the same kinds of programmes were run in the same slots throughout the week. This has probably been the channel’s greatest influence on British television, as the other terrestrial channels begin to adopt this practise, notably with strands of comedy on Friday nights.

It would be fair to say that C5 never has been well-received critically. Unlike Channel 4 which provoked “Channel Snore” headlines in the press at the time, it is taken as a given that C5′s ambitions remain lowly, and generally conceded that it’s forging new ground in lowest-common denominator television. Good news, then, that C5 still remains an irrelevance for the majority of viewers in the UK who will only check-in on the fledging station for a specific film or sporting event, before withdrawing again. Channel 5 may mark new innovations in poor-quality programming, however those who identify this as a trend throughout British television in general are much mistaken (particularly with John Dugdale writing recently in The Guardian, imploring the BBC not to be quite so educational).

Channel 5 promised us “high quality, more choice and innovation in entertainment, drama, news and current affairs, sports, leisure and lifestyle, films and children’s programming.”

Mike Gorman, again: “Channel 5 is all about more choice for advertisers, not about more choice for viewers.”

Channel 5 on 9 March

Channel 5 established: 30 Match 1997
Chief Executive: David Elstein
Director of Television: Dawn Airey