‘A’ Okay?

As Five US rebrands to become Five USA, Dominic Small charts the network’s multichannel fortunes thus far…

First published February 2009

The last terrestrial channel to launch in the UK, Five – or Channel 5 as it was named in 1997 – also proved the last to move into the multichannel market. As a result, earlier-arriving rivals like ITV2 (1998), E4 (2001) and BBC3 (2003) were able to build themselves up into strong propositions, and had arguably helped to develop digital TV itself. This meant that, when it eventually arrived, Five’s digital portfolio would face stiff competition for programmes and viewers.

So, just how would Five go about overcoming these problems and securing itself a perch in the new frontier of broadcasting?

Although it was billed as Britain’s fifth terrestrial station, patchy analogue reception in many locations meant that, for some, the only way to get Channel 5 was to go multichannel. It was the first and only UK terrestrial channel to be carried on Astra’s analogue satellite service (where it was available from 1997 to 2001), and joined the other terrestrial channels on Sky Digital and ONdigital when these went onstream in 1998.

For the first nine years of its existence, C5 was trying to build up its own brand and reputation, and went through an array of strategies and identities, including in 2002 a change of name to ‘five’. This investment in developing the main channel meant the broadcaster’s parent companies (originally Pearson, and later United News and Media) did not initially consider diverting attention into developing digital spin-offs.

However, the UK’s other terrestrials did have their eye on ‘satellite channels’ (in both senses of the term), and in the same year C5 began transmissions, the BBC unveiled its rolling news network, and (via BBC Worldwide) teamed up with Flextech to launch the UKTV package. ITV’s first branded move into digital, ITV2, came in 1998, though some of ITV’s constituent companies – including Granada (via GSB) and STV (via Sky Scottish) – had launched channels in 1996. Channel 4 had also begun its digital expansion in 1998, with FilmFour in its original form, followed in 2001 by E4 and, in 2005, by More4.

In fact, the BBC and ITV had gone into the brave new world of multichannel broadcasting a full decade before C5′s launch, but this tie-up – to run Superchannel – was short-lived, and it was later sold to NBC. A more fruitful pairing between the broadcasters came about when the BBC and Thames launched UK Gold in 1992, though Thames’ successors Pearson (now FremantleMedia) sold their slice to Flextech shortly after Thames lost their ITV licence.

Though the demise of ITV Digital in May 2002 did raise questions about the future of digital TV (particularly DTT), the launch and subsequent success of Freeview – which went on air in October of that year – proved digital was very much alive. It also confirmed the value of the terrestrial channels’ sister services, many of which had remained on air during the ‘transition’ period between ITV Digital and Freeview (though E4, then a pay channel, did take an enforced break from DTT).

The reason for the continuation of these services was the arrangement of the DTT multiplexes in the UK. While three were commercially tendered to ITV Digital – and surrendered and cleared on the service’s collapse – the other three had been divvied up between the terrestrial broadcasters, with the BBC on one, ITV and C4 sharing a second, and S4C and Five splitting the third. This allowed the main channels, and FTA sister channels such as ITV2, to stay on air, along with some FTA channels which had sub-let capacity on the surviving multiplexes (such as QVC).

However, while S4C – and its subsidiary SDN, which took up the same space in the rest of the UK under uncontested tender – leased its spare capacity to a number of channels, Five was not sure what to do with the extra space it had available. In the ITV Digital era, it had leased this to pay channels, but the absence of pay TV on Freeview, coupled with the fact the new Freeview channels were able to carve up the three ex-ITV Digital multiplexes, left Five with surplus space on its hands, and no plan to use it.

In 2004, a new pay TV provider – Top Up TV – came to DTT and booked up several slots, including Five’s spare capacity. This allowed TUTV to launch a linear pay-TV service; however, it also prevented Five from launching anything in the slots. In 2006, however, Top Up TV began to move away from linear channels towards a new on-demand strategy – Top Up TV Anytime – based on overnight programme downloads. Five’s management also purchased a 20 percent stake in TUTV, perhaps to give the channel greater say in how the Five-owned space was used after the switch to Anytime.

The switch of TUTV to downloads freed up three slots for linear channels – one, a noon-to-3am slot, was to be used for a new expanded service from Setanta (who had for a time been broadcasting a part-time weekends-only PPV service on multiplex 2), with the other two slots to go back to Five for new FTA channels. One of these slots was available to Five 24 hours a day, the other was only between 5am and 11pm due to the ongoing TUTV carriage arrangement for PPV adult channel Television X.

With the reacquisition of this space, Five – now happier with the improved branding and performance of their main channel – could finally look to build a multichannel future. Their new attitude to digital may have been driven by new owners. German firm RTL – who operate terrestrial and digital channels in various territories – had purchased UNM’s stake in Five (as part of UNM’s move out of TV and relaunch as UBM), and assumed full control of the channel. This new broom had led to a rethink in regard to the channel’s digital aims, though the change could also have been down to other broadcasters’ actions.

Following early uncertainty in the post-ITV Digital era, Freeview was flourishing. The BBC had relaunched their struggling digital outlets BBC Knowledge and BBC Choice as the more robust BBC4 and BBC3 in 2002 and 2003 respectively, and ITV’s network of channels grew in 2004 with ITV3 (and again in 2005 with ITV4), following the success of ITV2 (which had, to be fair, only really taken off after being added to Sky – then the largest digital platform – in 2001.) Channel 4 had also begun to move its digital channels off subscription and into FTA, switching E4 over to Freeview in Spring 2005, launching More4 in October of that year, and relaunching FilmFour as the free Film4 in 2006. (E4 and More4 remained as pay channels on satellite under an agreement with Sky, eventually going FTA following the 2008 launch of Freesat.)

These changes led to digital channels becoming stronger and drawing closer to Five in the ratings (indeed some occasions saw major digital channels occasionally leapfrog Five.) Digital channels also helped broadcasters maintain market share and brand loyalty as audiences fragmented, with ITV for instance claiming the growth in value of their digital channels was helping offset the decline in ITV1′s value caused by digital fragmentation.

It was into this environment Five finally went digital in October 2006. With its limited resources (a smaller budget than any of the other terrestrials) meaning a huge expansion in content was unlikely, Five instead looked to build on the most successful elements of its main channel. The output on Five that attracted the most viewers included big-name movies and sports events. However, although Five held the rights to a small number of these, it was felt dedicated channels for films and football would not be able to keep pace with the size and scale of bigger rivals such as Sky Movies and Sky Sports.

And as for the third of the famous ‘three F’s'? Well, the fact one of Five’s new channels would be off-air when TVX was on, coupled with the likely audience for such a service (small and unattractive to advertisers), led Five to shy. Additionally, it saw the digital launch as part of a plan to move upmarket and extend its appeal and market share.

To this end, Five looked at the most popular regular content on the channel. US dramas such as House, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy, JAG and the CSI series were performing strongly – and indeed after Five had dumped its early “movie every night” pledge, these dramas filled the primetime gap several nights a week. Meanwhile, among Five’s original UK programming, a raft of health, beauty, home and fashion series – Build a New Life in the Country, How Not to Decorate, Extraordinary People, Nice House Shame About the Garden, House Doctor et al – was performing strongly, benefiting from a general public appetite for these shows. Five decided as this was apparently the type of content viewers wanted, this was what they would get – only more so – from its digital offshoots.

Alas, the late arrival of Five on the multichannel scene meant much of the main channel’s content had already been licensed to other multichannel broadcasters (such as Living and Hallmark). This meant the network either had to void popular Five shows from its digital channels’ lineup entirely (eg Grey’s Anatomy) or sign up secondary rights to programmes viewers would have already seen elsewhere (as CSI, which had signed digital rights to Living).

As the digital launches got closer, the company became more savvy with regard to digital rights, For example, when Five signed a big-money deal to screen (the as-it-turned-out-short-lived) Friends spin-off Joey, the deal included the right to air the programme on future Five offshoots as well as the main service.

The small budget for the channels pretty much wiped out any original new programming, though Big Brother’s Little Brother-style spin-offs from flagship Five shows would be considered, and the channels could also preview new programmes before their screening on the main network, where rights allowed.

Five determined one of their new digital channels should be focused on a mainly female audience with lifestyle and celebrity shows, while the other would screen US imports aimed at male viewers.

The first of Five’s new channels to go on air was the female half of the duo, Five Life, launched at 8pm on Sunday 15 October 2008. This was a slightly bizarre decision for several reasons. Firstly, the main Five was premiering the heavily-promoted new series of Make Me a Supermodel – a show clearly of interest to FL’s viewers – at the same time, thus effectively wiping out their own sister channel’s audience. The late start also meant there was only time to screen three shows before the enforced 11pm cutoff (Five US having been given the 24-hour Freeview slot). Thus, the first night of Five Life could barely represent the broader range of programming to come, though the three shows picked (celeb documentary Inside The Priory, reality spin-off Make Me a Supermodel Extra and UK-premiere import drama Love My Way) did attempt to provide a snapshot of what FL’s viewers could expect when full broadcasts began the following day. Still, a 6pm or 7pm start for the channel would probably, on balance, have been easier to promote.

Further bafflement came with the launch of Five US at 8pm the following day. Clearly Five did not want their new channel launch nights clashing with each other, even though this led to that ugly Five/FL face-off. Also, the Five US opening night was not very representative of the launch week as a whole. On FUS – where the original mission statement was to bring together a wide variety of content from the States – the opening evening consisted exclusively of drama, confusingly beginning with the second-ever episode of CSI. The UK premieres of Stephen King’s Nightmares & Dreamscapes and legal drama Conviction flagged up the channel’s commitment to launching new content alongside the hits, with the night closing with a second CSI (from a different season to the earlier edition) and the first CSI: New York. While big blocks of drama may be Five US’s stock-in-trade today, the launch week was surprisingly light on them.

Five US, despite having 24 hours of broadcast time available to it, initially broadcast from 4pm to 1am daily – meaning viewers saw just nine hours of content and 15 hours of blank screen. Meanwhile, Five Life was squeezed at both ends by a six-hour daily Milkshake block and the enforced 11pm shutdown, which meant only 11 hours of the 18 available were living up to the channel’s remit. Indeed the wisdom of a separate Milkshake block partially colliding with the daily serving on Five was questionable, though not unusual (see also CBBC on BBC1 and the CBBC channel). Airing Milkshake on the Five US channel would probably have been a better idea, though eventually low ratings killed off digital Milkshake on weekdays (it remains at weekends, in a shorter slot still clashing with the Five block.)

There was also the issue of content which could feasibly fit onto both channels in their original format. The Ellen DeGeneres Show was a case in point – as a US import it should theologically have been on FUS, but its largely female audience and celeb/lifestyle content saw it instead punted out on FL. Meanwhile, a UEFA Cup match involving Newcastle and Fenerbache pitched up on FUS on 19 October – not an American import, of course, but as FUS was the nominal ‘men’s’ channel of the pair, it was deemed a more appropriate fit. This ‘solution’ was again something which could have been made less confusing with better foresight in the planning of the channels.

Five Life and daytime Five US, in their launch weeks, used a very tightly ‘stripped and stranded’ format, with the same content or style at the same time – though to be fair this was akin to the many other digi-channels – but again the move came at the time Five was distancing itself from such practices. All this confusion led to the image of three channels pulling in different directions rather than working in synergy.

There was also a distinct lack of notable, headline-making publicity for the launches (no equivalent of the More4 “Adult Entertainment” campaign of a year earlier), though the promotions that did appear at least flirted with controversy (the rhetorical “Who said nothing good ever came out of America?” campaign for FUS attracted complaints from people who took the comment at face value). Additionally, while the launches of past digital channels had been heavily plugged by their terrestrial sisters – FilmFour (in its original form), BBC3 and BBC4 even having simulcast their launches on terrestrial stations – Five seemed content to get their channels up and running and then let the audience find them. A hard task when Five Life was some 30 positions behind ITV2 on the Freeview lineup, for instance.

This lack of visibility was caused by the ‘first come first served’ nature of most digital platforms’ Electronic Programme Guides. With many of the more prominent positions having been assigned to earlier arrivals, Five was aware its new offshoots would, at launch, be quite far down the EPG menus. Over time the channels have, thanks to wider reshuffles of channel numbers, moved slightly higher up the grid on Sky and Virgin Media (Virgin even jumping Five’s channels over its own Trouble), but there is still some distance between the Five channels and their direct competitors. Although they are still on their original Freeview positions of 35 and 36 at the time of writing, it is widely expected they and others will be shunted up the guide in any future refresh of the Freeview EPG.

The launch weeks of Five Life and Five US also had other issues. Love My Way aside, new content was thin on the ground at Five Life. The usual formula in the first weeks – once Milkshake was out of the way – was a weepy movie to fill lunchtime, then a couple of Trisha Goddard repeats, then Ellen’s US chat, followed by five hours of lifestyle/celeb/real-life content almost exclusively made up of repeats from Five – interrupted only for a first-look at the next day’s Five edition of Home and Away at 6.30pm, in an idea surely in no way pinched from Hollyoaks on C4/E4. All this led to the new channel looking very tired and bland within days of its launch.

Conversely, while Five Life was sleepwalking, Five US was throwing pretty much anything at the wall to see what would stick. The first four hours of each day (4pm to 8pm) were ‘stripped’ – two hours of US comedy (initially Joey repeats and the ancient Happy Days), then an hour of Pimp My Ride (originally signed up for the main Five, but redundant on FUS as producer MTV’s Freeview sister channel TMF was also running the series heavily), and an hour of US sports from 7pm – with the first week featuring X Games, NFL, NBA and NASCAR. The US sport was an example of what FUS should have been doing: sniffing out exclusive content which gave the channel an identity and wasn’t being presented the same way elsewhere (on Freeview at least).

Evenings on FUS, however, were more flexible, and perhaps because of the rights problems outlined above, lacking in drama, with the channel going heavy on prime time films in its first week (Big Daddy, Mr Deeds, Judge Dredd and Belly of the Beast all featured). Elsewhere, US lifestyle/documentary shows (Combover, Million Calorie Diet, Master of Champions) also appeared – again, rarely shown elsewhere, but why on FUS rather than the lifestyle-leaning FL? Drama eventually popped up again on Friday (20 October) with a CSI-heavy lineup (including the pilot of CSI: Miami and a repeat of Conviction).

This led to the channels appearing rushed and unfinished, with Five Life becoming a relentless cycle of crammed-together heavy-rotation blandness and Five US seemingly a half-empty space with movies filling large holes in a schedule that was too small for its slot. Indeed, an irony was that TUTV viewers would actually have got more video content if the slot had still been used for pay channels. The lack of programming was testament to the flaw in the heart of FUS’s mission – it needed big-name US shows to draw in viewers, but had to scratch for scraps because many of the crown jewels of US TV were already long since signed away to other stations.

These problems meant the channels performed poorly in their early months, and it was inevitable, then, that changes would be made. Five US – having initially rationed its use of US dramas – became more heavily dominated by them over time, with the acquisition of secondary rights to shows including House and Numb3rs, though again these would be shared with other channels. FUS also found an unexpectedly large hit in the US version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, the improvisation-based panel game which had been exported to America following the success of the original UK version.

WLIIA proved FUS didn’t just do sport and drama, and the show is now a regular fixture of the lineup, particularly at weekends. The scheduling (usually in double bills aired in the afternoon and again in early-peak) may also have convinced digital channel Dave to air the UK Whose Line…? in a similar pattern when it acquired the series – which had originally been considered a post-watershed show by C4.

Sport has also largely disappeared, though Five continues to cover US events in overnight slots. Factual/lifestyle shows are now also less present, though some do still appear, particularly those linked to other FUS content (such as True CSI). The broadcast hours of the channel have also grown, with FUS now on air from noon to 1am, alongside a three-hour Jewellery Channel simulcasting from 9am daily, and post-1am broadcasts are also now available, albeit only when films, poker tournaments or Quiz Call are on.

Five Life, meanwhile, has been through a more substantial change. The channel has broadened its content and appeal and now aims at a younger audience, under the new name Fiver, introduced on 28 April 2008. Whereas Five Life targeted women with a mix of homes and beauty, this has now been faded down in the mix to bring the new channel into line with the likes of ITV2 and E4, which aim towards a slightly female-skewed younger audience. This has been achieved by acquiring more comedy and drama, with the likes of 8 Simple Rules, Everybody Hates Chris and Dawson’s Creek joining the line-up, and Joey moving across from FUS. These shows are all US imports, of course, but now thought has been given to how they fit into the portfolio, with Five US screening content aimed at an older, male-leaning audience.

Thus the Five channels, previously struggling to fit their own ideals, have improved their viability and visibility by focusing more on delivering the kind of content that fit the audience’s demands, rather than trying to shoehorn audiences into the broadcaster’s preferred channel formats.

A side-by-side comparison of the launches of Five Life and Fiver shows what had changed about Five’s digital strategy between the two launches – and what hadn’t. Whereas Five Life had gone for a Sunday primetime launch, Fiver decided to kick-off at 6am on a Monday morning. There was no re-tuning required; the new channel was simply pumped out in the place Five Life had been until six hours before. The result was that those viewers flicking onto the Five Life numbers during the day didn’t just see a blank screen, but it also meant there was not much room for a big build-up to the launch, with the added complication Fiver had to attract new viewers without scaring off those that had been watching Five Life. Indeed, promos aired pre-change for shows screening post-change referred to the channel as “Five Life – Soon to be Fiver”.

As a result, the schedule – particularly in daytime – didn’t exhibit much of a progression from its predecessor, with The Ellen DeGeneres Show (albeit relegated to 6am), Trisha Goddard, Home and Away, Neighbours (which had joined Five Life – and Five – from the BBC in 2007) and My Body Hell all present in the first Fiver schedule. It was in the afternoon and evening there was the most progression. The desire to move the channel to a younger audience was clearly seen in the addition of US comedy 8 Simple Rules at 5pm; the teenish sitcom had already been a staple of the Disney Channel and defunct entertainment sibling ABC1 for some time previously. At 6pm, however, the channel reverted back to its bad old ways, chucking out a repeat of Animal Rescue Squad in order not to provide heavy competition for the main Five’s Home and Away.

It had been decreed that H&A would be a key driver of Fiver, and on launch night the channel premiered the next two days’ episodes as a stunt; from the following day Fiver would revert to being one day ahead, repeating Monday’s second episode on Tuesday. This soap reliance exposed another flaw in Fiver: while Five has Neighbours and H&A as a block from 5.30pm to 6.30pm, the obvious place for Fiver ‘first looks’ would be between 6 and 7pm. However, while a 6.30pm visit to Summer Bay is no problem, a Fiver screening of Neighbours at 6pm would clash with Five’s H&A (though this would not, of course, be a problem for viewers of H&A on Fiver!) So, Fiver’s Neighbours first-look is normally at 7pm (it was at 7.30pm on launch night due to the Summer Bay double), which not only puts quite a distance between it and the Five episode, but also clashes with ITV1′s Emmerdale. It also eats a slot Fiver could have used for innovative early-prime programmes, and virtually condemns the channel to showing gruel at 6pm. It seems that rather than trying to complement Five, Fiver is too busy trying not to step on its big brother’s toes.

Later into the evening, the fussy home and lifestyle shows which dominated Five Life have at least gone, making way for celebrity, drama and reality shows tailored to the new young, upmarket viewers Fiver is targeting. The launch night featured two glossy celeb documentaries – Glamour’s Best Dressed List and Celebrity Rehab – wrapped around the UK debut of season two of paparazzi-themed drama Dirt (the first run having been a minor hit on Five and Five US in 2007). Since then, the fare has remained relatively similar, with Five Life-type content only occasionally popping up in prime (The Hotel Inspector, Extraordinary People), having largely made way for the younger-skewing likes of Banged Up Abroad, Fashionista Diaries, and Generation Sex. Fiver also acquired Sex and the City, which is well-known enough to bring in casual viewers but hardly innovative, having already been on numerous other channels. While Fiver still talks mainly to women, the channel has also dipped its toe into what its promos have described as “boys’ telly”, with shows like Police Interceptors, Unbreakable and The Gadget Show.

There are still a few issues, however. On weekday mornings Fiver now repeats the editions of The Wright Stuff and Trisha Goddard that have only just wrapped on the main Five. This means viewers who watch on Five and then switch over in the hunt for similar content will find themselves with the same output they’ve only just seen. If these repeats moved to, say, a mid-afternoon slot they’d be able to reach an audience who cannot catch the TV in the morning, while also freeing up Fiver’s early schedule to be more complementarily to Five.

Another problem for Five US and Fiver is the level of deja vu on the channels, with many of the shows on Fiver and FUS having already been screened either on the same channel, or on Five, or on another channel entirely. Some digital channels – mainly E4 and ITV2 – have begun to commission new content which – while lower budgeted than those on the terrestrial stations – are useful tools to draw new viewers in, and can help find new and emerging talent who can go on to larger prominence on the main channels. Fiver in particular would be able to benefit from a similar arrangement being put in place.

In January 2009, Five announced its new brand image would be making its way to Five US by way of another channel rebranding. However, whereas the Five Life-to-Fiver change was revolution, this would be evolution. Rather than attempting to reinvent the channel Fiver-style, Five US becomes Five USA from February 16. Five insist the change is more than just a new name, however, and have signed up several new series. While some may see this revamp as a missed opportunity to broaden the channel’s scope, others may point to the fact FUS has been a successful format, and change for the sake of change could amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A more pressing issue is the impending departure of Trisha Goddard from Five (and by extension Fiver), though the fact that “economic considerations” (ie. budget cuts) prompted Trisha’s removal suggests her replacement will be cheaper – a move which does not bode well for the slot on Fiver. However, this does also open up opportunities for Fiver’s schedule to be reshuffled and revitalised.

When Five first unveiled its digital channels, they initially appeared to be an afterthought – an attempt to keep pace with their rivals at any cost, without enough thought as to how the new services would complement each other or indeed the main Five operation. Content was scraped together and the holes in the schedules loomed larger than the actual programmes. Now Five has had time to tweak the channels, they have settled in a bit more and found more of a voice, but still Fiver/Five USA have yet to develop the same sort of identity BBC 3, BBC4, E4 or More4 have.

Improvements to the content, promotion, branding and positioning of the channels would help them get there – but certainly the work done so far indicates they are at least moving in the right direction.