Channel 5 retuning programme is leading us all a merry dance

C5’s retuning operation has turned out to be a major headache. It’s lucky new boss Elstein was able to put the launch date back. By Torin Douglas. Torin Douglas is BBC radio’s media correspondent

I had kept the letter safe, as bidden on the multicoloured envelope. “The Retuners are coming…”, it declared. But weeks passed, and they still hadn’t – so when the multi-coloured postcard arrived, informing me they had come while I was out, I was naturally disappointed.

I rang and fixed an appointment, as instructed on the card. I proudly gave them my unique security code, which I had taken care to keep in a safe place, and arranged for them to come during half-term when I would be at home. I was keen to watch the job in person – and not just because David Elstein, Channel 5’s new chief executive, had given a deep sigh when I told him how many TVs, videos, satellite connections and Nintendo systems the retuner would have to address.

I also wanted to compare the Channel 5 technician’s performance with that of the hapless Sky installer, who happened to get my job on his first day. It wasn’t my fault that the Philips satellite system I had bought from the Dixon Group’s hi-tech chain The Link, hadn’t been automatically tuned in at the factory, as the instructions promise.

What this meant was that each of the 50 or more satellite TV channels (and three dozen radio stations) had to be tuned in individually. My installer was required to become a retuner. Since it was already getting dark by the time he and his more experienced colleague had put up the dish, locked it onto the satellite and started retuning, I said I’d take over after the first nine stations.

Is it any wonder I haven’t yet got round to retuning the new Granada satellite channels or Sky 2 or Sky Sports 3, which on my set currently occupy channels 31, 32, 42 and 59?

I can already hear Videotron and the other cable companies laughing up their sleeves: “We told you that cable was much more user-friendly – we do all the tuning in, you just have to switch on and enjoy the picture.” To them I can only retort that at least these channels are all in my system somewhere.

It was in a mood of gleeful anticipation that I awaited the arrival of the Channel 5 retuner, complete with his smart new uniform and security pass. I looked forward to being able to give my code word before allowing him over the threshold. And I recalled Greg Dyke’s immortal joke (before he became a shareholder) about Channel 5 being a “burglar’s charter” – “sorry love, we’ll have to do it in the van” – and his estimate that you could clear a street in ten minutes.

Booking an appointment had been straightforward. The phone number on the card was answered within three rings (so Channel 5 was heading for its first Charter Mark before it was even on the air). I was given a choice of dates when the retuners would be in my area, plumped for one during half-term and was told the appointment was for the afternoon (by which they meant between noon and 5pm).

When no one had arrived by 5pm I decided to ring the number again. They were most apologetic and said their teams were working till 6pm to get the job done and would probably arrive soon. They gave me the number of their enquiry line. I was given a supervisor code and a number representing my tuning area.

It all seemed very efficient. But by 6pm, no one had arrived. Nor by 7pm, nor 8pm.

That was two weeks ago and I have heard nothing from them since. Perhaps Chiswick is the Bermuda Triangle of retuners, a black hole from which none return. Perhaps my Sky installer had switched jobs (Elstein told the Broadcasting Press Guild a Channel 5 “supertuner” can net 1,000 a week) and had taken one look at my house and suffered an appalling attack of déj vu.

Fortunately for Channel 5, it is no longer committed to getting on the air in January, or cases like mine would be tragic rather than comic. It is not clear what the Independent Television Commission would have done if it had failed to make its original airdate (and Elstein wisely says he has “never had time to find out”, whether it would have met the January target).

By securing it an extra frequency and extra homes (and hence a plausible excuse to delay the launch), Elstein has won Channel 5 a vital breathing space. It is not only those running the retuning operation who are grateful. Its programme-makers would have been hard-pressed to come up with a fully-fledged schedule, including a hit-the-ground-running soap, by January. It also means the deferment of its first multimillion pound payment to the ITC.

All in all, Channel 5 looks a much stronger bet since Elstein’s arrival. But the retuning operation remains a major headache. The company has so far taken on only about half of the 8,000 retuners it says it will need at the peak of the operation. And though he says 99.7 per cent of retuning has happened on the first visit, with no need for the retuner to go back, I’m not clear whether that includes first visits like mine, which don’t take place at all.

The good news, he says, is its transmission tests show the actual interference from its signals is very low. So it is now experimenting with the idea of “reactive” retuning, instead of “pro-active”, in some areas – by which it means switching on its transmitter for a few hours, seeing who complains and then going to retune their set. Those who suffered no interference would not need retuning.

“It would save them inconvenience and us money”, he says.

As someone who has had the inconvenience and still not the retuning, I sympathise.

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