Sky’s Elstein provides welcome shot in the arm for Channel 5

C5 has pulled off a coup by hiring Sky chief Elstein. In a stroke it has secured a key industry figure and forged links with Sky. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

It is remarkable how the appointment of one person can fundamentally alter the perception of a company’s health. Last Thursday, Channel 5 was a rather sickly looking enterprise: a difficult start-up in a highly competitive market, gung-ho and enthusiastic but hampered by limited resources and the expensive logistical problem of retuning millions of video recorders.

Twenty-four hours later none of those problems had gone away, but the channel was rejoicing in the appointment of a new chief executive, David Elstein (“one of the most capable men in British broadcasting” – The Independent), and a resulting sense that its problems were no longer insuperable.

Elstein’s appointment came out of the blue, although with hindsight it might have been predicted. He was approached less than three weeks ago at a film screening by one of C5’s directors and asked if he’d like the job.

Twice he had himself headed a bid for the C5 franchise, once as director of programmes at Thames TV, and once as head of programming at BSkyB.

The second time Rupert Murdoch scuppered the application, made jointly by BSkyB and Granada, by putting in a derisory bid of 2m.

Since then he has been working at BSkyB without a contract. Offered the chance to run his own show, and get his hands on Britain’s last terrestrial channel, he naturally leapt at it. C5 is apparently kick ing itself that it did not approach him earlier.

For its part, BSkyB may find it hard to replace a man who was not only playing a key role in the development of a 200-channel digital service but also acted as an effective spokesman.

C5’s appeal to Elstein lies in the fact that it offers the licence-holder a clean slate. “There are no preconceptions, no historic image, none of the bags and baggage that have so long governed the way British broadcasting is organised,” he says.

“It’s going to be a rational channel; it’s going to be targeted much more sensibly, in terms of its programming spend, at its audience.”

“Rational” is a very Elsteinian word (he is, after all, one of the cleverest as well as most capable men in British broadcasting). And what he says is undoubtedly true, although he may be frustrated that, with just four months to go until launch, he will be able to do no more than tinker with someone else’s idea of what is rational.

In the early stages the new chief executive may find himself fire-fighting (especially if the retuning process goes seriously awry) with precious little opportunity to impose an overall shape on the channel’s activities.

As it happens, much of C5’s positioning and programme plans are still undeclared. The closest we’ve got so far to an insight into its thinking came from the director of programming, Dawn Airey, at the Edinburgh Television Festival.

She described the channel’s target as a “popular modern mainstream audience”, predominantly under 40, who want television to provide them with things which are useful, revelatory and entertaining in a “modern way”.

So C5 will not be an ITV2 or a “BBC1 lite” – it can’t afford it, for one thing. But nor will it be a kind of MTV, because C5 needs volume audiences.

Airey won’t reveal the audience share for which she is aiming – that, she says, is commercially too sensitive. Asked to name the kinds of programmes she’d like on her channel she cites ER and Drop the Dead Donkey, Absolutely Fabulous, Men Behaving Badly and Shooting Stars.

In fact, there won’t be any Ab Fab-style sitcoms – the channel can’t afford them – nor much drama. But there will be a daily soap opera; a news bulletin at 8pm or 8.30pm presented by a young Scottish broadcaster who has done news and lifestyle programmes, Kirsty Young; a half-hour daily entertainment magazine show; a lot of US imports and a number of themed medley or “rolling” sequences.

One such rolling sequence may feature on Saturday nights, which Airey freely concedes will be her most difficult night on which to win an audience.

Another will run late-night on weekdays and will be devoted to sport, with a two-hour sequence of phone-ins and chat. With the exception of some “extreme” sports and one as yet unnamed American one, C5 can’t afford to buy rights to broadcast the sports themselves.

That, however, is one area in which Elstein’s arrival may have some effect. His own C5 application envisaged considerable co-operation between the new channel and BSkyB – in marketing, distribution (satellite could take the channel to those parts its terrestrial transmitters won’t reach), advertising sales and programming.

In particular, the two broadcasters could share sports rights. Elstein’s already talking of co-operation between C5 and Sky. “It’s applying rationality (that word again) to broadcasting rather than patch protection and jealousy,” he says.

BSkyB’s marketing expertise and purchasing power are formidable. If Elstein really can bring the two together, it could make C5 a much more formidable competitor to the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 than anyone anticipated.

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