Days of Vine and Dozes

Channel 5: 1997 – 2002 by Ian Jones, Steve Williams and Chris Hughes

First published April 2007

With hindsight, we’d all been warned. The omens were there from the off. Channel 5′s first mistake was on its very first night. Or rather, the night itself: Sunday 30 March 1997.

For this was Easter Day, and it meant both the launch night and the following day’s schedules (on Bank Holiday Monday) needed to be particularly exceptional, it being one of those points in the calendar where broadcasters traditionally wheeled out their big guns to provide real quality fare. They weren’t, and as such C5′s opening gambit felt distinctly low-key.

Hence after The Spice Girls had chanted a rewritten version of Manfred Mann’s “5-4-3-2-1″ came a half-hour long trailer hosted by C5 “faces” Julia Bradbury and Tim Vine, then the first episode of soap opera Family Affairs. Two Little Boys, an ITN documentary on the childhood influences on both John Major and Tony Blair, followed next, as did one-off comedy Hospital!.

Then came Beyond Fear at 9pm: a drama based on the real life kidnapping of estate agent Stephanie Slater. Slightly misleadingly, this gave the impression that drama was to be a regular staple of C5′s schedules, when in fact it was to be, for a long time, one of most rarely sighted of genres on the whole channel. Finally came Jack Docherty launching his nightly chat show; stand-up from The Comedy Store; analysis of the weekend’s sport in Turnstyle; and finally Live and Dangerous, C5′s all-night sport strand.

Rather ambitiously, C5 proclaimed that this opening schedule would pull in up to six million viewers at any one time. In reality it peaked at 2.5 million, which nonetheless was above the 5% audience share chief executive David Elstein had realistically hoped for. But it was a complete one-off, as ratings quickly plummeted. It was also totally unrepresentative of what C5 was intending to show over the following weeks and months.

Red Letter Days

Throughout the months leading up to its launch Channel 5 had relentlessly flagged up its commitment to screening major feature films. It therefore seemed somewhat perverse for the station to hold back its biggest catch until seven days after it went on air. Mrs Doubtfire would have made a much better choice for the opening night, not thrown away on an otherwise run-of-the-mill early Sunday evening.

In fact the channel was without any real “must-see” television of any kind during its opening weeks. Its schedules adhered strictly to the much-vaunted “stripped” and “stranded” policy Elstein and director of programmes Dawn Airey had copied wholesale from the United States, which was all very well as a theory, but in practice relied upon there being decent programmes to strip and strand. And there weren’t.

Weekdays were bolted into a fixed sequence of instantly forgettable lifestyle and escapist fare. After a perfunctory breakfast news programme and some kids shows, mornings would begin with the dull consumer affairs show Espresso, hosted by amongst others Pattie Coldwell and, for a time, Edwina Currie, and which returned pointlessly for an 10-minute Espresso Update at 11.50am. Trashy US imports Leeza, The Bold and the Beautiful and Sunset Beach followed, as did the charmless Pebble Mill-ite 5′s Company. Bland entertainment programme Exclusive went out at both 10am and 7pm.

Early evenings were given over to lifestyle, nature and cookery shows before Kirsty Young turned up at 8.30pm with the main evening news. Here was an example of a show that went on to have an impact far in excess of its actual worth. Young’s “groundbreaking” presentation (look – she’s sitting on a desk) were credited as having a profound influence on the way news coverage later evolved on all main British TV channels, though there was and still is nothing that singles out C5′s news output as demanding to be watched in preference to that from other stations.

At first weeknights were moulded around the 9pm film, which quickly went from being of a reasonably high calibre to recycled C-list pictures. At 11pm Jack Docherty held court. After roping in Roger Moore for his debut show, it was but a matter of days before he was swapping lame gags with Steve Punt. Again, the programme simply didn’t feel like a “must-see”, and was quite clearly being produced on a minuscule budget. Its host then disappeared for weeks on end, so that through the summer of 1997 a string of “guest” presenters including Rich Hall, Phill Jupitus, Tim Vine, Graham Norton and Dr Fox were left fronting this supposedly flagship series. By September it was already down to four evenings a week.

Late nights were initially the home for comedy. But another big flaw of the stripped concept was that new series had the knack of all ending simultaneously. So it was the panel game Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, medical quiz Tibs & Fibs, The Comedy Store, sketch show We Know Where You Live and stand-up compilation Club Class all disappeared from the schedules over one weekend, being replaced the following week by repeats of Prisoner Cell Block H.

Weekends boasted Night Fever and the cult imports Hercules: The Legendary Journey and, later, Xena: Warrior Princess. These won loyal but tiny audiences, as did the channel’s primitive sports coverage Turnstyle and Live and Dangerous. C5 had actually secured the rights to an unusual but diverse mix of world sports – but then buried them in the middle of the night.

The biggest coup of these early days, despite the lamentable quality of the actual broadcast, was landing coverage of the Poland vs England World Cup qualifying match on Saturday 31 May. More football rights were acquired later in the year, and began to disrupt their previously strictly ordered schedules with UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cup coverage. A few other variations were also added in the autumn: new US import Melrose Place on Sunday nights; reruns for The Sweeney and Knight Rider; a re-launched Name That Tune hosted by Jools Holland; and, replacing Jack Docherty on Friday nights, La Femme Nikita. Largely though, output remained fixed and pretty much unchanged for the rest of 1997. If this was intended to generate familiarity and audience loyalty, however, the strategy was ill conceived, for ratings also remained fixed and unchanged – at the low to non-existent.


Channel 5′s history can be measured through its sloppy evolution through a succession of phases, resting upon awkward and ill-managed jolts to the schedules. As such the first big “jolt” came at the start of 1998 when changes were made to the previously sacrosanct stripped and stranded output.

The evening news was moved from 8.30pm, when it competed with no other terrestrial news broadcast, to 7pm, where it went straight up against Channel 4 News. C5 had bought the new series of Beverly Hills 90210 and now made this the opening shot in its Saturday night schedule. A high-profile addition (of sorts) to Wednesday nights was The Pepsi Chart, which began in February ’98 and was complemented by a Monday night update from Dr Fox. Unfortunately this went out at the ludicrous time of 10.50pm. In all these cases radical revisions were being made to the schedules, only to demonstrate an absence of understanding how to build audiences.

The biggest changes, however, were to daytimes. The execrable 5′s Company was replaced with the only slightly less inferior import Beauty and the Beast. But then this was moved in April ’98 to make room for the more accomplished Open House with Gloria Hunniford. Glo was joined in the schedules by Oprah Winfrey and Sons and Daughters, all adding up to a slightly more robust daytime line-up. Most of these shows would stay in place for a good few years.

Evenings, by contrast, were becoming more disorganised. The 9pm film “slot” was increasingly abandoned for football or unexceptional comedy such as The Morwenna Banks Show. Jack Docherty’s programme was reduced to three nights a week. Russell Grant became a C5 “face” with his 10-minute Postcards schedule filler and gruesome Housebusters series. Fleeting examples of innovation – The People Versus Jerry Sadowitz – were compromised by other inexplicable decisions, such as replacing Turnstyle with the almost identical Sports Talk.

The station also began trying out theme nights and weekends, but all of a laughably third-rate nature. These included “Sci-Five Weekend” in April ’98, “Wild, Wet & Windy Weekend” in August, “The Clone Zone” in October and the dreadful “Boys Night In” on 2 December, which comprised an edition of The Pepsi Chart, The Sweeney, the film Freebie and the Bean, Melinda Messinger’s new chat show, and NHL Ice Hockey.

Most notorious of all, however, was “Diana Night” on Sunday 16 August. This sequence of programmes marking the first anniversary of Princess Diana’s death included I Dream of Diana (various accounts of people fantasising about the deceased royal in their sleep), The People’s Princess: A Tribute (a fictionalised retelling of her final year) and a 100 Per Cent Special – a Diana themed edition of C5′s quick-fire general knowledge quiz.

As the station approach its second birthday other new shows spread out across the schedule, and the channel mutated further away from its original incarnation. One of these was the unique House Doctor, another the appalling Roseanne Show – both debuting in autumn ’98. The channel still didn’t know what to do with enduring formats such as Exclusive, forever trying it out at different times in the hope something would come good. Similarly Mariella Frostrup was unceremoniously herded from show to show, while seemingly desperate to maintain a working relationship with C5 at any cost.

Keith Floyd joined the channel in November ’98 with a new series, Floyd Uncorked. C5 bought up the rights to the Miss World contest, which subsequently reappeared on terrestrial screens in December. The channel also exploited Melinda Messenger’s profile, pairing her with Leslie Grantham for new game show Fort Boyard and developing a chat show format, Melinda’s Big Night In, both of which began in October ’98. Ostensibly she was now C5′s biggest “face”; in contrast Jack Docherty’s show was now down from three to two nights a week, and often going out as late as 12.15am – a pretty shocking way to kill off a programme (as was the perception).

C5 seemed unable to ever make decisions over when to axe a programme, preferring to let it slowly die by itself, and consequently further belittle the channel’s image. Meanwhile its soap Family Affairs merited a complete overhaul from former Coronation Street producer Brian Park who proceeded to blow up almost all the cast and start over again. Ratings failed to markedly improve.

Into the Blue

Despite C5′s still-pervasive reputation as a home for hours of soft porn and smut, hardly any output of a supposedly “erotic” kind was broadcast during the channel’s first 12 months. Apart from its much-hyped Friday night dirty movies, porn had no big place in the early days. From June ’98 however it began creeping across the schedules, beginning first with new series Compromising Situations and Hotline on Wednesday and Thursday nights respectively. The long-running Sex and Shopping series began in October ’98, but it was in 1999 that a whole pantheon of “adult” entertainment started turning up, almost on a nightly basis. UK Raw, European Blue Review, Red Shoe Diaries and Love Street became more or less permanent fixtures, compounded by many one-offs with names such as Mexican Sex Hotel, A Thong for Europe, Lap Dancer and, simply, Lingerie.

Late-night soft porn attracted a particular demographic that advertisers could effectively target. It filled gaps in the schedules, didn’t cost very much, and could be repeated endlessly for months on end. It probably contributed in its own way to the channel’s increased audience share. But overall it helped cement an image for C5 as home for exploitative, unwatchable television.

Suddenly it felt like the “erotic” movies were on a lot more, while a seediness manifested itself throughout the schedules: the Erotic Oscars, quiz shows such as 100 Per Cent Sex and Ex-Rated, talk show Sexual Intercourse and movie review series X Rated implied the channel was obsessed with matters carnal. Channel 5′s official mission statement of being “modern mainstream” was ceremonially ditched for, in Dawn Airey’s words, the “three ‘F’s”: films, fucking and football.

In early 1999 the Broadcasting Standards Commission spoke up, complaining that C5 were using sexually explicit material for its own sake on free-to-air television. Complaints were upheld against Hotline and Compromising Situations, while further complaints had been made about Sex and Shopping. A C5 spokesman pointed out, “We have to take notice of this, but they do not have the power to ban this. It is for the ITC and they have not got any problem with our late night schedule.” This was an imaginative interpretation of what the ITC thought, who made a point of criticising C5 in just as clear terms for its over-reliance on pornography.

Of course C5 were still hopelessly attached to its staple shows, such as the US soap imports, the endless lifestyle series and sensationalist documentaries. 1999 also saw other programmes appearing including cult drama The Tribe, the appalling Jim Tavare Show, and My Titanic – a series of films tastelessly comparing individual people’s personal traumas with that of the hundreds drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. Jack Docherty’s show limped on, down to one night a week, before ending on Wednesday 23 June with special guest Michael Aspel in attendance. Repeats of ITV’s Ruth Rendell Mysteries pulled in viewers; drama sometimes bolstered the schedules (such as the Doomwatch spin-off in December ’99); comedy remained as feeble as ever – the nadir being Jenny Éclair’s Private Function; while the relaunch of It’s a Knockout won a lot of publicity but never delivered.

On top of all of this, Channel 5′s news coverage suffered from yet another schedule move to the ludicrous time of 6pm, and the loss of Kirsty Young to ITV in November 1999. ITN reporter Andrea Catherwood was appointed new anchorwoman and the main evening news revamped once more in January 2000, but left at 6pm – floundering helplessly up against the most popular bulletin of the day, the BBC’s Six O’clock News.

Green Shoots

However by March 2000 there had already been enough of a subtle scaling back in the sheer volume of porn for the ITC to acknowledge that “there is not the same quantity of tacky sex (on Channel 5) with the exception of the wee small hours where there is a heavy diet of sexual portrayal.” Indeed, the channel’s news output was praised, as were its documentaries, films and religious programmes – but overall the C5 continued to suffer “from the inclusion of a great deal of low-budget material of little distinction.”

As if on cue, three months later the nation was treated to the sight of Keith Chegwin parading across screens sporting an explorer’s hat and nothing else in the one-off “game show” Naked Jungle. “We had a call from one woman who thanked us for snapping her out of her postnatal depression,” cooed C5′s spokesman, “she said it was the first thing that had made her laugh for months.” In the event the ITC only received 13 complaints; the show was more shocking in terms of its overall quality and production values than on any grounds of taste.

During the rest of 2000, there was the slight perception of the channel beginning to in effect “clean up” and try and refocus attention back onto its other output. Sadly this mostly involved more sensationalist documentaries, such as Serial Killers, Medical Horror and The British Cannibal, one-off profiles that were turned around off the back of a celebrity’s sudden misfortunes (these included Michael Barrymore, Chris Evans and Paula Yates), and the hiring of Mirror journalist Matthew Wright to front mid-morning current affairs show, The Wright Stuff.

Something of coup came in February 2000, though, when C5 snapped up the rights to Home and Away. ITV exercised their exclusivity clause, preventing C5 from showing the soap for 12 months after it stopped screening the series itself, so C5 responded with the fanzine show Home and Away – Back to the Bay, intended to hype up interest in the series, which it aired from November. The station also grabbed the rights to Ricki Lake from C4. This kind of poaching would become more of a feature of a slightly more competitive Channel 5 in the new millennium.

C5 then began experimenting with various big budget “reality” game shows, but with mixed results. Jailbreak in autumn 2000 was a spectacularly dull effort, compromised by its own convoluted and contrived set-up, its host Craig Charles (a late replacement for Ulrika Jonsson), and the fact that three people rather than one ended up winning. Far better was The Mole, which C5 beat the BBC in securing the rights to, and then screened twice in 2001 to great effect. Touch the Truck, though, backfired in every possible way.

The station’s owners RTL engineered David Elstein’s exit as chief executive in October 2000. Desperate to keep Dawn Airey from leaving the station, they had decided to make her the new boss of the channel. Initially she also remained director of programmes. But still C5 couldn’t sort out some of its more elementary and obvious of problems. Its news coverage continued to defy logic. Predictably the 6pm bulletin was scoring minuscule ratings, but the channel then managed to lose Andrea Catherwood back to ITV at the end of 2000. The channel then began a concerted campaign to persuade the ITC to sanction moving its main bulletin back to 5.30pm – and out of the designated “prime time” zone – to make room for Home and Away from July 2001; when this failed C5 ridiculously ran two half hour bulletins, one at 5.30pm and one at 7.30pm: a wholly unsatisfactory compromise.

In the Pink

In January 2001 an ITC survey revealed C5 to be the eighth most watched service in pay-TV homes, behind the other four terrestrial broadcasters but also Sky One, UK Gold and Sky Sports. RTL were keen to see more positive changes at the channel, but of what kind, and – with Dawn Airey still juggling two jobs – who would lead the charge?

A period of negotiating resulted in existing C4 head of entertainment Kevin Lygo defecting to C5 in May to become the new director of programmes. “Kevin is an exceptional talent who has been at the forefront of commissioning some of the most innovative and widely viewed entertainment formats of the last few years,” beamed Airey. Lygo claimed, “When I arrived I thought there was bucketloads of smut on Channel 5, but in fact there isn’t. It’s just a small part of the schedule. When I was at Channel 4, we commissioned a lot more sex programmes than they do at Channel 5.”

If that programming had to remain, he argued, “My job will be to limit the output, but also to make it better.” In August he wooed three of his former C4 colleagues to join him in this quest, in doing so replacing the core team of commissioners and controllers that had run C5 from its launch. Airey quipped that all of the new class should be given a Channel 5 blood transfusion to ensure they understood her channel properly – then set a new target of hitting a 7% share by 2005.

Lygo responded by wooing the BBC Top Gear team to present and produce Fifth Gear, axing Fort Boyard and tempting Kirsty Young back from ITV. A deal was concluded with Paramount for the terrestrial rights to Saving Private Ryan, The Matrix, Armageddon and Eyes Wide Shut. Perhaps the channel’s fifth birthday, barely marked at all on screen, was celebrated off camera as betokening good times ahead …