Will Channel 5’s ‘worthy’ remit prove a turn-off for the masses?

All TV channels are claiming to be ‘quality’, so C5’s focus on ‘factual’ peaktime viewing may be unpopular with the mass market. Torin Douglas is BBC TV’s media correspondent.

Channel 5 Broadcasting may have impressed the Independent Television Commission with its programme plans, but will it impress audiences? One of the biggest buyers of TV airtime, Initiative Media, thinks the new channel may be heading in the wrong direction.

There has been much talk of “distinctive” programming aimed at a variety of tastes. Greg Dyke of Pearson TV has explained that Channel 5 will carry factual programming in the heart of peaktime – including an 8pm main news, ten minutes of current affairs and half an hour of leisure or adult education programming – because that’s when ITV and BBC1 are at their most popular.

This approach certainly paid off with the ITC. One of the reasons UKTV’s programme plans were turned down was that its weekday peaktime schedule consisted entirely of dramas and entertainment, and its only peaktime factual programming was between 7pm and 8pm on Sunday evenings. Virgin’s programming was rejected because of its over-reliance on drama and entertainment and it proposed no factual peaktime programmes until year six of the licence.

Yet Initiative Media believes the “quality TV” lobby has had such success in recent years that there is now a gap in the peaktime schedules for game shows, quizzes and other popular programming. It says the old heartland ITV audience – mid-to-downmarket, middle-aged housewives – is no longer catered for in peaktime, however well it may be served during the day.

“The tastes of minorities – the young, the ABC1s and other groups – are now well catered for in the evening,” says Phil Georgiadis, Initiative’s chief executive.

“What worries me with Dyke’s schedule is all this factual programming in peaktime. In its brand values, I think Channel 5 is trying to be too worthy. I’d like it to be brash, full of good old tabloid values.”

“Worthy” is not the word generally associated with Dyke. However unfairly, he is the man forever linked with TV-am’s Roland Rat. He put up millions of ITV’s money to try to win the Premier League, replaced the “God slot” with blockbuster movies, and later went before the Heritage Select Committee to explain why ITV wanted to move News at Ten. He might well respond to Initiative’s charge: “Worthy? Moi?”

But Initiative has a point. Despite recent criticism from advertisers – and some critics – that BBC1’s schedule is becoming too popular, all four of the terrestrial channels fall over themselves to emphasise the diversity, quality and public service nature of their output.

None more so than ITV, which last week put out two glossy brochures on the subject. On the cover of one is the simple word “Quality” – neatly incorporating the ITV logo in the last three letters of the word. On later pages come “Diversity”, “Regionality” and, last though perhaps not least, “Popularity”.

The brochure is full of statements demonstrating the worthiness of ITV. “ITV spends more on making original programmes than any other channel in the UK… or Europe… ITV spends more on making British drama programmes than any other channel… ITV has won more international and national awards than any other UK television channel since 1990… ITV is the only channel producing the majority of its network programmes outside London.”

The statements are all based on research in the second glossy brochure – a report commissioned by ITV from analyst Spectrum, called Television and the Role of ITV. In the wake of the News at Ten fiasco and Channel 4’s campaign to abolish the “funding formula” (under which it subsidises the ITV companies), the new documents are designed to show MPs and other opinion-formers that ITV plays an important public service role in broadcasting and the economy.

ITV executives maintain that the network’s move upmarket is a response to advertisers, who are constantly saying they don’t only want to reach mass-market audiences. But Georgiadis believes the pendulum has now swung so far that Channel 5’s best chance of making money is to cater for that mass market.

An Initiative Media analysis suggests it could take as much as 200m in its first year, if it delivers a consistent diet of popular programming that appeals to the mass of the general public – light entertainment, game shows, quiz shows and sitcoms. It reports: “Our analysis of the current schedule highlights that these genres have been neglected in favour of ‘quality’ drama as the peak output of ITV, BBC and C4 converge with programmes that please the great and the good.”

Using its extensive scheduling software, Initiative constructed a popular Channel 5 peak schedule to run against the four terrestrial channels during one week in May. “The schedule was totally unconstrained by regulators and critics,” says Georgiadis. “In homes receiving Channel 5, we calculate an

11 per cent share of viewing is possible – by offering the mass of the population the types of programme that they prefer to watch.”

Unfortunately, that seems to be a route that Channel 5 Broadcasting is not at liberty to take – or UKTV and Virgin really would have a grievance against the ITC.

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