C5 fails to use its grey matter

Channel 5 does not want the ‘passive’ to tune in. But can it afford to reduce its audience before it even launches?

Cast an eye slightly to the south east of this opening paragraph and you will, with a start, come across a shattered visage. A face upon which time has etched a lesson or two, some learnt, others forgotten. A face that is not so much lived in as slept in. A face, in short, that has seen two score years and more.

It is, moreover, the face that is fondly expected to beam from an open portal and greet the uniformed retuner with the banality “Give me Five”. It will not. The jug ears to either side of this face will listen to the Retuner (for he comes with a capital “R” as well as a “special device”) as he recites a unique security code; the bespectacled orbs set deep in this face will observe the Retuner’s “give me 5” photo ID card and cast a baleful gaze upon his ill-fitting “give me 5” uniform; then this face will open its mouth and, in words slow and measured, advise the Retuner precisely, or even approximately, where he can put his special device.

Such behaviour will, of course, be quite out of character. So what, you will ask, can cast so deep a shadow over a personality often compared to a ray of sunshine?

How is it that a character known for its readiness to pat small children on the head, smile at strangers, and toss coins into charity boxes can assume the mantle of the curmudgeon?

The answer, my friends, is as tragic as it is simple. I have been cruelly spurned by a woman. And a Ms at that. I have not met Ms Dawn Airey, though her name has a wonderfully bucolic redolence that is positively inviting. Had I heard the name and nothing more, I would have thought of crisp white sheets billowing on the line, of menthol fresh mountain streams, of air balloons turning their logos to face brilliant sun. As it is, Ms Airey makes me bilious.

In case you didn’t know, she is the director of programmes at Channel 5, the new terrestrial station that will start broadcasting early next year. As such, she guards many a closely kept secret, principally what on earth yet another channel can add to the pile of ordure deposited in people’s homes by the existing four.

The only sure way to find out is to wait and see. But first, because the frequency band allocated to the station is likely to interfere with existing video recorders and satellite or cable decoders, potential viewers must grant entry to the army of retuners soon to swarm the land.

In the meantime, all we have to go on is a hint here and there. The colourful leaflet heralding the arrival of the retuner and his special device promises “high quality, more choice, and innovation in entertainment, drama, news & current affairs, sports, leisure & lifestyle, films and children’s programming”. A package, in fact, that is word perfect in its repetition of every prospectus ever submitted by importunate applicants for a licence to print money.

Those eager for something more substantial to bite on had to wait until last week when Ms Airey spoke at the Edinburgh Television Festival. She told her audience that the team putting together the new channel had asked themselves “What’s missing in British television?” Instead of coming up with an obvious answer ie, “anything worth watching”, they turned the tables and blamed the viewers.

There is, they concluded, an “inherent malaise and indifference, a passivity”, in the audience reaction to television. Well, I should damned well think so. If you had to sit in front of a hearthside tube pouring out drivel until it lapped about your ankles night after night, you too would feel a little queasy.

What is the answer? Having identified the audience as the source of the problem, the team behind C5 applied a logic impossible to fault, namely to dispense at a stroke with a vast swathe of the sick, the indifferent and the passive. Viewers over 40, warned Ms Airey, need not tune in, for there will be nothing for them.

“The 40s are only going to get older and they’ll take their values with them,” she explained. I say “explained” but her statement is, in truth, as clear as a bucketful of horse manure. I cannot deny that the 40s are going to get older (indeed the face now lying to the west of these words offers itself as ghastly proof), but so too are the 20s and 30s, unless, of course, Ms Airey knows differently, in which case the Office of Population Censuses & Surveys would like to hear from her.

As for the 40s taking their values with them on the short march to senility, does she imply that the 20s and 30s have readily disposable values? Surely she cannot imagine that her younger target audience is a tabula rasa on which this footling new channel can imprint new lasting values that will command lifelong allegiance?

Heaven knows what she means, I’m not sure she knows herself, but when you’re launching a new channel in a medium that isn’t exactly flooded with goodwill, it’s not a smart idea to alienate 50 per cent of your potential audience before you’ve beamed out so much as a test card.

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