Channel 5’s launch could be marred by ‘choice confusion’

Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent. C5 will be born at a bad time. Election fever may smother its launch, and research is showing that more TV choice means less overall viewing.

Perhaps Channel 5 should bid to mount the Great Major-Blair TV Debate, with the participants dressed in “modern mainstream” primary colours (sky blue for Major, shocking pink for Blair) and the “lead anchor” of Channel 5 News, Kirsty Young, striding about the set (demonstrating in the process that she was born with legs) as she holds the ring between the Prime Ministerial contenders.

It might make for more entertaining viewing than a televised debate mounted by the BBC or ITV, with a title like “The Nation Decides” and a Dimbleby in the chair, the participants dramatically spotlit in a darkened studio as a brassy fanfare heralds the opening titles.

If Channel 5 were being truly innovative it would mount the debate in front of a live audience several thousand strong, baying for blood and encouraged to be as vocal and as partisan as they please, while millions ring a special phone-vote line in a dry-run for the election proper.

It won’t happen of course: the Independent Television Commission didn’t much care for Carlton TV’s programme on the future

of the monarchy, upholding complaints from 53 viewers who thought the whole thing was noisy, shallow, biased and poorly controlled.

The programme’s defenders claimed it was the most original piece of peak-time current affairs for years, establishing a new television format. But today’s politicians, who painstakingly calculate the impact of every phrase and every photo opportunity, will never voluntarily submit to something which is potentially so explosive and so far outside their control.

So Channel 5 must reconcile itself to launching into the teeth of a general election campaign, which is bound to detract from the coverage the new channel itself gets. It won’t even have the consolation of getting an attention-grabbing programme out of it.

The campaign will also present a challenge to Channel 5 News, one of the new station’s flagship programmes and one which it hopes will define just what that elusive “modern mainstream” concept means in practice.

The audience for television news is greying inexorably. Channel 5 hopes to hook adults under 45 with brightly coloured presenters in a brightly coloured newsroom and a news agenda which places much more emphasis on consumer affairs, lifestyle and entertainment than on inflation figures and politics.

Indeed Dawn Airey, Channel 5’s director of programmes, is on record as saying news, and Westminster politics in particular, is seen as the preserve of an “insider” class of television pundits, reporters and commentators “who cosy up to politicians and hand down information about a self-important world that seems increasingly remote to the viewer”.

How will they cope with the election staples of morning press conferences, opinion polls, manifestos and staged walkabouts?

That Channel 5’s launch should coincide with a rival attraction is just the latest in the succession of problems which have beset it. Retuning 9 million videos was the biggest, but has now been completed. The ITC has rubber-stamped Channel 5’s figures, which show that 90 per cent of households in its initial transmission areas have been retuned – although Channel 5 has had to suffer the bad publicity of a small number of viewers whose retuning was botched.

But it now seems that hundreds of thousands of homes which have been retuned still won’t get a satisfactory signal because Channel 5’s transmitters are too weak or because the technical characteristics of its transmissions are different to those of the four existing terrestrial channels in a particular locality.

Many people will need to go out and buy new aerials if they want to watch the channel’s new soap, its late-night Letterman-style chat show and its nightly showbiz and entertainment programme.

The lynchpin of the schedule is a feature film at nine o’clock each evening. An attractive prospect, if the channels can find a sufficient number of high quality films to fill 52 weeks a year. The chances are it can’t.

Research carried out for CIA MediaLab suggests a nightly film will be popular with viewers – but that the prospect of yet another soap opera leaves many cold, and that 42 per cent of those questioned aren’t looking forward to the launch.

Two-thirds of those surveyed also thought they wouldn’t watch more television just because Channel 5 is available. In this they are probably right: other research confirms that more television no longer results in more viewing (though it did once).

The research expert David Graham told last week’s Television Show in Islington that his analysis of BARB figures suggests that total viewing is decreasing, despite the increase in both the number of channels and the number of home television sets on which to watch them.

Graham says that’s because more sets mean less traditional “collective” viewing of the main household TV, and more individual viewing in other rooms. He suggests that’s because multi-person homes face “a confusion of choice that can result in less overall viewing”.

If television viewing dips next month it may be more than a reaction to the likely overkill of election coverage – it may mean Channel 5’s arrival has presented too many people with a “confusion of choice”.

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