Part One

Steve Williams takes on Channel 5

First published August 2001

I originally thought that having to reschedule Channel 5 was going to be the toughest of all the assignments. This basically comes from the fact that I hardly ever watch it. It took me some time to work out the last time I actually watched Channel 5, and it was March; Albania vs England. Before that it was November 2000; Liverpool in the UEFA Cup. But apart from football, what was the last programme I actually watched on the channel? Extensive research suggests it was Festival of Fun, Lee and Herring‘s series on the Montreal Comedy Festival, broadcast in August 1999. And even this was hardly a ringing endorsement of C5′s programming, as it was shown on Sunday nights, at around midnight, and in any case was originally shown on Paramount. So for the past two years, C5 has meant little or nothing to me; I browse the schedules and hardly anything catches my eye.

I admit, the reception of Channel 5 in my area is hardly up to home cinema standard, certainly inferior to the other four terrestrials. But even if it was on a par with the other four channels in terms of picture quality on my set, it wouldn’t be on a par with the other four channels in grabbing my attention. Last year, I lived for six months in an area where I could pick up a fine C5, and I could never be bothered tuning my telly in – there was nothing I wanted to see on there to make me.

But I’m not dismissing C5 out of hand based on watching a handful of programmes, looking at the listings in the Radio Times and reading about their latest stunt in the papers. Back in 1997, I spent a lot of time with the new channel; I was there on the opening night, obviously, and in the first few weeks I kept up with a few fixtures in the schedules – Jack Docherty, Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment, The Comedy Store … they were all entertaining enough. In fact somewhere here I’ve got a fuzzy, black and white recording of Stewart Lee’s appearance on Docherty’s programme. But after a while, I began to wonder exactly why I was watching. Whether it was Jack Docherty interviewing Steve Punt or another comedian doing routines about kebabs, I never worked out what you could get on C5 that you couldn’t get on another channel. So I stopped watching.

After that, I practically never switched on to Channel 5 out of choice, and I only encountered the channel on the odd occasion. I used to come in on a Saturday afternoon and my flatmate would be watching the Sunset Beach omnibus, or I would be bored late one Sunday night and idly glance at Turnstyle. I always got the impression that C5 was very much a “last resort” for other people as well; flatmates would flip over to The Core as it was the least objectionable programme on a Saturday afternoon, or my parents might be dissatisfied with an evening’s television so take their chances with 5′s film. But they wouldn’t be waiting with baited breath to see what the following day’s film was going to be.

So then I drew Channel 5, and it seemed like running this hopeless channel is like trying to steer the Titanic, an impossible job no doubt doomed to failure. But then, what did I have to lose? There were practically no existing “sacred cow” programmes that I had to do something about – no C5 equivalent of Panorama or Newsnight to try and find a slot for. There were no favourite programmes I would try and promote above all others – the only person I particularly like on the channel is Rob Glass the weatherman. And considering that people only appear to turn over to the channel when there’s nothing on the other side, it seems you only really need to have a couple of enticing programmes and the rest takes care of itself. Get the schedules right, and nobody notices. Get the schedules wrong, and still nobody notices. It’s a win-win situation.

So, my new radical schedule, then. Er, well, maybe not, as the seemingly useful situation described above seems to be the major problem with devising a new schedule; the lack of solid ratings bankers means that there isn’t a great deal of raw material to play with, and also too often there needs to be consideration of what other channels are showing. There seems to be little point in throwing away the channel’s best programmes against big-budget opposition on BBC1 or ITV. Basically, I had to work out what Channel 5 was actually for. If it was there to provide an alternative, I didn’t see how that could happen when on many occasions during the week C5 show similar programmes to the other terrestrials – like on Sunday mornings when they show children’s programmes, much like BBC2, ITV and Channel 4. Or on Saturday nights when they show entertainment programmes at the same time BBC1 and ITV are doing the same.

So my basic idea for Channel 5 was to sort out these schedules and try and avoid replicating the line-up that my four colleagues were going to come up with. I also wanted to emphasise the brashness and the youth appeal of the channel; too often the its claim to be “modern and mainstream” isn’t really given over by the scheduling, which seems very mundane and dull at times. My main aim, though, was to make some sort of sense of the schedule.

I wondered why Channel 5 abandoned the idea of “stripping and stranding”. Alright, it didn’t really work at the start, but I reckon that was down to the wrong programmes being stripped (the boring and pointless Exclusive, the enjoyable-but-burnt-out Jack Docherty) and the strands being unappealing. My version of stripping and stranding would involve much broader strands, and I feel this is entirely sensible; my basic idea is that as Channel 5 is trying to entice over viewers from the other channels, it needs to be much clearer on what’s on when. To take a week’s schedule at random, the 7-8pm slot is filled on various days by imported drama (Robin Hood), magazine programmes (The Movie Chart Show, Exclusive – still!), wildlife and sitcom (That Seventies Show) – a fairly ragged selection, with little day-in day-out appeal. But if you were to point out that you could always be guaranteed, say, comedy, or documentary, in a specific slot, then the viewer can then rely on that slot to offer something they want to see every night.

It also seems odd that such a “modern” channel should have such idiosyncratic scheduling. The timing of programmes seems all over the place; even C5′s “flagship” shows shuttle around the schedule. Take Late Night with Jerry Springer; the first episode of the current series was at 10.50pm on a Saturday, then the second programme was on Friday week (meaning there was a gap of almost a fortnight between the two) at 10.50pm. The next programme was at the same time, but the fourth was at 11.10pm and the fifth at 11.20pm. How’s that going to help viewer loyalty? Fair enough, it follows films, of varying lengths, but even the normal day-to-day programmes go out in unusual, unmemorable timeslots.

The perfect example is The Core on Saturday afternoons; now, with the arrival of the Home and Away omnibus, there have been changes, but for ages the slot ran from 1.55pm until 5.55pm, with the various programmes starting at 25 and 55 minutes past the hour – Rad, for example, going out at the memorable time of 2.55pm. What makes this bit of scheduling all the more curious is that immediately before The Core there’s a 10 minute news bulletin, and immediately after there’s a five minute news bulletin. But why not just do 15 minutes of news at 1.45pm so everything can start on the hour and half hour? Even more bizarrely there’s another, lengthier news on Saturdays at 7.50pm, less than two hours after the last one – seemingly implying the 5.55pm news is there purely to fill up those odd five minutes.

Even on weekdays, programme times seem badly thought out – Ricki Lake running from 8.50 – 9.35am, and Gloria Hunniford from 2.20 – 3.35pm. Sometimes there’s a news update at 5.20pm, sometimes there isn’t – presumably it depends on how long the preceding film is. Channel 5 has some of the worst scheduling since BBC1 some 20 years ago (Doctor Who at 6.55pm; Top of the Pops running from 7.25 – 8.05pm). Haven’t we all got more sophisticated since?

So we’ll have none of this in my new schedule. We’ll have programmes starting at sensible times, with similar programmes going out in similar timeslots. All I need to do now is to think what these programmes should be.

Er …