Everyone Hates Dan

five: 2002 – 2007 by Ian Jones and Steve Williams

First published April 2007

“It is never too late for a glass of champagne.” “Et tu, Brute?” “Friends applaud, the comedy is finished”. “I think that I could eat one of Bellamy’s meat pies.”

Just a few of history’s most memorable famous last words, which slipped from the dying mouths of, respectively, Anton Chekhov, Julius Caesar, Ludwig van Beethoven and William Pitt the Younger. It’s a list that has rung peals of blarney down the ages. And it’s a list to which could be added, as of March 2003, the following, equally waspish sign-off:

“Channel 5 is all shit, isn’t it? Christ, the crap they put on there. It’s a waste of space.”

Such were the final words to fall from the lips of singer turned actor Adam Faith, as he lay in a hotel room, idly piloting his remote control through the stations on his TV set, before suffering a sudden and fatal heart attack.

The impact of his unlikely deathbed incantation was swift. The man running the channel in question, Kevin Lygo, promptly scrapped what vestiges there remained of tawdry erotica and titillation skulking in corners of his schedules. His motives might have been less than honourable, engaged at the time as he was in trying to convince his employers the station was now the home of arts documentaries and classy US drama; but they were surely no less worthy than the kind of programmes which Faith had so succinctly cauterised and which had so stunk out the Channel 5 during its infancy.

Out of the Blue

For sure, the business of cleaning up had been a long one. The sterilisation wasn’t even complete come September 2002 and the most dramatic rebranding of the station since its launch. Out went the on-screen logos, capital letters and half the station’s name. Now it was to be called simply five, a moniker that was as desperately fey as it was distinctly unwieldy. It looked silly written down. It looked even sillier on screen. To this day hardly anybody refers to the station as five, particularly in the media industry.

Nonetheless it turned out to be Kevin Lygo’s greatest lasting achievement at the channel, for it remains associated with C5 to this day – unlike Lygo himself who severed all ties with the station in September 2003, two and a half years since he arrived from Channel 4, to whose grabbing hands he now returned.

Almost everything else Lygo accomplished while in charge was of short-term consequence. Prime time show Live With … Chris Moyles soon became Live With … Christian O’Connell which soon vanished. The likes of God Almighty with Clive Anderson, Dream Holiday Home with Carol Smilie and foot-in-the-door investigations by Donal McIntyre, though bringing well-known stars to the channel, also brought too well-known formats which failed to flourish.

An attempt to make Sunday nights a place for must-see documentaries, kicking off with the heavily-promoted Michael Jackson’s Face, withered when both the documentaries and the promotion dried up. The decision to axe Open House with Gloria Hunniford was downright perverse; she was one of the most solid hits the channel had ever seen.

Lygo also failed to sort out the channel’s enduring problem with music programming. The Pepsi Chart was axed in the summer of 2002, to be replaced by Pop with Lauren Laverne from the Marquee, which was promptly dumped on Saturday afternoons. Then in January 2003 this was summarily ditched, replaced by The Smash Hits Chart, which then went to Channel 4 to be replaced by The Flaunt Chart, which was then replaced with simply The Chart. Each incarnation registered decreasing impact and even less viewers.

Admittedly he wasn’t helped by the sudden departure of his boss Dawn Airey, who fled to BSkyB at the start of 2003. Jane Lighting, the head of cable company Telewest’s production arm Flextech, and for whom terrestrial television seemed something of an anathema, succeeded her.

But one field that would reap a very productive harvest in years to come was that of American imports. Here the credit must go to head of acquisitions Jeff Ford for buying up the likes of The Shield, CSI Miami and Law and Order. “I couldn’t see the Beeb going for CSI,” Ford later recalled, “and it wasn’t Channel 4, because it’s not clever enough. Sky One like their 16-34 demographic, so it’s a bit old for them.”

In hindsight, given their subsequent ubiquity in the schedules, it’s hard to see how five could have survived without its US shows. As it was the spending spree which secured such lucrative imports meant the annual programme budget had been used up by June 2003. At which point, conveniently for him, Lygo was on his way out.

Into the Black

Dan Chambers, head of five’s factual department, was promoted to replace him. “I’m delighted,” he announced, “to have been given this great opportunity to lead what I think is the best programming team working in British broadcasting.” He inherited a channel peppered with relics like Martin Bell, who had been contracted to report on the invasion of Iraq, a series on Britain’s Finest Stately Homes, and, clunking away every weekday morning, The Terry and Gaby Show. Even the news was ailing once again, having earlier that year been shuttled from 7.30pm to 7pm, a lunatic decision that placed it once more head-to-head with C4′s vastly superior effort.

But Chambers received two fillips within months of taking up his new post. First was the news that the channel had recorded its first operating profit. Second were the latest audience share statistics. Back in 2001 Dawn Airey had set C5 a target of winning an annual 7% viewing share by 2005. At the time such a goal had seemed preposterous. When the figures were added up for 2003, however, it turned out the channel had hit 6.5%. Moreover, it was the only terrestrial station to record any kind of rise. Clearly something was working, even if it was reliable bankers such as blockbuster films and football.

Buoyed by these twin achievements, Chambers embarked on a poaching drive. John Barnes was snaffled to be the station’s new football host. Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan, hosts of BBC2′s The Million Pound Property Experiment, were contracted to helm a swathe of entertainment and lifestyle shows. Dawson’s Creek was purloined from Channel 4.

At the same time, two of Kevin Lygo’s prize catches, Robot Wars (nabbed from BBC2) and Terry Wogan, were summarily dismissed. The former had suffered the usual scheduling battering, being kicked from 7pm on Sunday to 8pm on Saturday to 4pm on Sunday, its last episode going out at 1pm. It seemed the old afflictions still persisted. five would make great play about signing up big names and big brands, then just not know what to do with them.

Equally the channel just didn’t seem as assured as its rivals in juggling highbrow offerings, such as the drama about MMR, Hear the Silence or The Big Question with Stephen Hawking, with shamelessly trashy offerings like Back to Reality, its much-hyped “reunion” of “stars” from various celebrity endeavours. In February 2004, the same month that show hit the air, the boss of Channel 4 Mark Thompson announced he was in talks with five about, of all things, a merger.

How this could have possibly worked, or benefited Channel 4 in any way, was never adequately explained. What five stood to gain from shackling themselves to an enemy that had no interest in any of its programmes was mystifying. “Channel 4 might be interested,” quipped a cocky spokesperson, “because they are declining and we are growing”. Fortunately Thompson was promptly hired by Michael Grade to be the new BBC Director-General and the entire baffling scheme was quickly dropped.

Simultaneously the same fate befell five’s contract with ITN. Once more cash was talking: Sky News was offering a cheaper service, so five followed the money. The fact that all 60 existing news staff had to re-apply for their jobs created a huge amount of off-camera antagonism. Typically the standard of the channel’s news coverage showed no discernable improvement when Sky took over.

Chambers was now having to contend with an annual programming budget of £170m, compared to Channel 4′s £450m. He cited this parsimony as the main reason he axed The Terry and Gaby Show, though it didn’t stop him shelling out a reported £500,000 an episode for Friends spin-off Joey – a figure Chambers described as “an exaggeration, but not a wild exaggeration”. A pity, then, that when the show arrived on air in February 2005 it nowhere near matched its price tag in terms of quality. Paired with Charlie Sheen vehicle Two and Half Men, it embodied the channel’s aim to punch above its weight, if simultaneously scheduling with its heart rather than its head.

Of a more frugal, homespun and perhaps more eye-catching nature were the channel’s first forays into as-it-happens TV. The Operation Live and Fighter Plane Dig Live! were headline-grabbing and relatively cheap efforts, followed quickly by the shamelessly-titled Cosmetic Surgery Live.

The most talked-about offering of Chambers’ tenure so far, however, came in September 2004 in the shape of The Farm: yet another reality TV endeavour, despite five’s appalling track record in the genre, housing disparate personalities in the titular rural wilderness and forcing them to do predictably humiliating tasks. One of which, for Rebecca Loos, was wanking a pig.

For some this was far more offensive than anything the channel had broadcast in its history, including all the porn. For some it was far more entertaining than anything the channel had broadcast in its history, including all the porn. For most it probably amounted to yet more tired evidence that the channel, despite the teatime talking head art shows, despite the likes of Egypt Week and Big Art Challenge, would always ultimately return to cheap schlock.

Purple Patch

The 2005 General Election afforded five a chance to recover a bit of dignity. It managed to persuade each of the main party leaders – Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy – to spend an entire day at the station, turning up on The Wright Stuff, the main news bulletin and a special Talk To… audience participation show. Three retired grandees, Edwina Currie, Mo Mowlam and Shirley Williams, were invited to comment on the campaign, while the results proper were brought to viewers courtesy of Sky News.

It was imaginative programming, let down only by the choice of vehicles into which all these famous names were forced to step. The Wright Stuff in particular had become a real bear pit of a series, with considered debate often losing out to whoever could shout loudest.

Those sentiments were equally true of the channel’s latest catch, Trisha Goddard, whose titular talk show’s defection from ITV prompted the latter to schedule old stored-up editions against C5′s new episodes. So You Think You Can Teach, meanwhile, aped the latest trends in celebrity TV by consigning well-known personalities to an unlikely setting: in this case Tamara Beckwith, Janet Street-Porter and Shaun Williamson taking classes at Abbey Meadows Primary school in Cambridge.

Its conceptual simplicity was soon aped by Three Celebs and a Baby, forcing, among others, Colin and Justin (surnames now irrelevant) to parent a doll. Then; Britain’s Worst Celebrity Driver Live!; Trust Me, I’m A Holiday Rep – the likes of Nina Myskow and Syd Little slumming it in the sun; Commando VIP; and, by the autumn, celebrities like Ms Dynamite even editing the news.

Worthy programming persisted, including World War I in Colour, Big Ideas That Changed the World and Britain’s Finest Actors/Actresses. But so did the likes of Monster Moves, Make Me a Supermodel and Brand New You: the latest “ultimate” makeover show, involving a “complete cosmetic rebuild” of both sartorial and physical appearance. The impression, as ever, was of a channel seeking to please the many but merely satisfying the few.

More stability could be found off-camera than on. In July RTL’s purchase of United Business Media’s 35% stake in the channel at least meant there was now just one company calling the shots. But the following month Family Affairs was axed, ostensibly “to raise money to invest in new comedy and drama”; in October the same fate was dealt to The Farm and “all other reality programming”.

These actions might have provoked more acclaim and less flippancy had five’s history not implied such decisions were usually made out of short-term expediency rather than long-term strategy. Indeed, any evidence of a long-term strategy for the channel would have been welcome. Ditching reality TV would have seemed more worthwhile had there been something decent to put in its place.

Instead the likes of Great White Shark Dive, The World’s Deadliest Shark, Whale Shark – Journey of the Biggest Fish, John Lydon’s Shark Attack and Killer Shark Live didn’t exactly suggest a plurality of ideas on the part of Chambers and his team. Hot Tub Ranking, with opposite sexes invited to evaluate each other’s body parts, was a throwback to the channel’s blue years, ditto Naked Celebrity, while Swinging, the first sketch show commissioned by the channel since 1997, took as its theme the wholly original and unexpected topic of sex and relationships.

One judicious foreign purchase was House, the Hugh Laurie-fronted medical drama, which slowly but surely would become one of the channel’s most lauded regulars. The same was true of The Hotel Inspector, while Don’t Get Me Started was another headline-grabber, this time involving celebrities sounding off on a contentious topic. Domino Day in November, with its footage of world record-setting toppling, proved very popular, as did Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour. The same month the channel picked up two Bafta children’s awards, and launched Perfect Day, which evolved into a trilogy of high-profile one-off dramas revolving around the same set of characters in auspicious occasions.

Yet for all this 2005 was the first year in which the channel recorded a drop in its audience share. It was minute – a 2% fall – but ominous. To date, five had bucked the trend and increased its share while all around were suffering. In many respects it did this in spite of rather than because of any grand plan, yet could always point to such a statistic as proof it was doing something right.

White Out

Dan Chambers would spend most of 2006 fighting to arrest this trend, and ultimately failing. The good publicity won by landing more US exports such as Prison Break, Grey’s Anatomy and Everyone Hates Chris, plus terrestrial highlights to England cricket matches, was counterbalanced by bizarre decisions such as hiring John Suchet to read the news and poaching The World’s Strongest Man from the BBC.

A new set of onscreen idents chose not to feature the channel’s logo at all, instead comprising depictions of “emotions”, one of which boasted an image of sperm to represent “love”. Winner of the Literary Review Award for Bad Sex in Fiction, Giles Coren, turned up to front film review show Movie Lounge. Suburban Shootout fulfilled journalist William Phillips’ prediction of 1997 – “we have yet to shudder at five’s first sitcom” – while Selling Yourself constituted yet another spin on the Pop Idol format, only involving recruitment headhunters.

Not content to leave nostalgia well alone, The Seventies – That Was The Decade That Was confirmed that it wasn’t, and the sight of Boris Johnson “playing” “football” as part of an England Legends v Germany Legends match achieved little except winning the channel its first hit on YouTube. The usual obsessions resurfaced: as-it-happens TV (Pompeii Live, Battle of the Popstars Live, Birth Night Live); quack science (The Baby Mind Reader, which resulted in 10 complaints to Ofcom after Derek Ogilvie claimed he could see into the brains of hyperactive toddlers); Z-list personalities (Celebrity Tudor Wedding, The All Star Talent Show, Alive: Back to the Andes); and the worthy stuff nobody watched (Buildings That Shaped Britain; Philip and Elizabeth, with Gyles Brandreth; 9/11 – Out of the Blue, a poem by Simon Armitage).

Yet as ever there were some limited achievements. Big Love was the first HBO drama to ever be transmitted on five; The Perfect Disaster used glossy CGI to imagine hypothetical natural catastrophes; and Ann Maurice fronted Interior Rivalry, in which eight people competed to win a £50,000 prize to start their own business.

And finally, at long last, and many years after its competitors had done the same, five went digital. In October Five Life and Five US were launched, accompanied by the channel’s biggest-ever advertising campaign. But it was too late. The runes had been cast by RTL. Audience share was continuing to slide; it would finish the year back at 5.7%. Tripping Over, one of the channel’s biggest commissions of ambitious, youth-orientated drama, flopped terribly. Dan Chambers learned Lisa Opie had been appointed over his head as managing director of content. Opie, like chief executive Jane Lighting, hailed from Flextech. Chambers promptly walked out.

Fade to Grey

five approached its 10th birthday with gritted teeth and glazed eyes. Trust Me I’m a Beauty Therapist was perhaps the most pointless programme in history; Glories of Islamic Art bore probably the least glamorous programme title in history; the celebrity trench was mined yet again in So You Think You Can Nurse; and the likes of From Asbo Teen to Beauty Queen and Colin and Justin on the Estate continued the channel’s penchant for revelling in the underclass.

A Girl’s Guide to 21st Century Sex was cleared by Ofcom despite complaints concerning its “shocking and explicit” material. Kitchen, starring Eddie Izzard, was another glossy drama with big names that sank. Victoria Cross Heroes, introduced by Prince Charles, did likewise. Daily quiz Brainteaser was suspended as part of a widespread investigation into the reliability of terrestrial TV premium phone line competitions.

In the light of all this, the birthday commemorations seemed less than overwhelming. Viewers could choose between Britain’s Extraordinary Ten-Year-Olds (“Three amazing children who’ve triumphed over adversity”); Gordon Brown Meets the Ten-Year-Olds; The Ten Demandments (10-year-old Abby swaps places with her parents in a one-off reality-esque effort) and I Blame the Spice Girls (Liza Tarbuck chairing a one-off comedy panel show casting an inevitable sideways look at the last decade).

It all felt terribly ineffectual and dispensable, and in that sense was wholly fitting. On the occasion of its 10th anniversary the channel carried the same air of irrelevance it boasted on its launch. It still felt like an adjunct, an unwelcome distant relative, a loiterer forever kicking its heels in the corner of your eye.

To date the channel has never reached its holy grail of a 7% share. It more than likely never will. History will record the closest it came was 6.6% in 2004. Money is, and always has been, the problem: it simply cannot compete on half the budget afforded to BBC2 and Channel 4. It can make as many historical and philosophical series as it likes; it can commission as many cheap documentaries as it likes. Yet audiences only come to a channel in the first place if it promises big, dependable, enduring hits, and this station just can’t produce them.

five continues to revel in the status of a last resort, an alternative to the other main stations, the home for faces poached from other channels, and a place for films, football and fucking imports.