Channel 5 tries on new birthday suit

Channel 5 enters its third year on air this week, pinning its hopes for an image revamp on an Australian Vietnam veteran.

Bruce Dunlop, a promotions expert who masterminded BSkyB’s on-screen look for six years, has been hired to boost a marketing strategy which aims to alter the public’s perception of Channel 5, enabling it to reach a wider audience.

Dunlop may have survived armed conflict in his youth, but in 1997 he fell victim to Elisabeth Murdoch and left Sky to set up his own consultancy.

He begins at Channel 5 this week and will work with the station’s marketing director and former Sky colleague Jim Hytner.

Hytner explains: “Two years ago Channel 5 had a brilliant launch. It attracted a very good, young market which was extremely valuable to Nick Milligan [Channel 5’s sales director].

“But for us to grow, we need to be slightly broader. The worst thing for Channel 5 is to be seen as a niche, youth-oriented channel.”

So far, Channel 5 has achieved a healthy 7.6 per cent share of commercial viewing on a programme budget of 110m. This rises to 115m this year, but it is still a fraction of the 700m the ITV Network Centre has to spend on programmes, or Channel 4’s 380m.

From its launch, Channel 5 gained a reputation for innovation. Its news was read by a young woman perched on a desk. It showed an uninterrupted movie at 9pm every night, long before ITV’s News at Ten move.

Channel 5 also made the tactical coup of buying the rights to choice European and international football matches. It became a satellite terrestrial hybrid, the youth market embraced it, and it now boasts the youngest profile of any terrestrial channel.

Steve Williams, head of TV at BMP OMD, says the station has made good progress since launch: “Channel 5 had a 4.3 per cent share in its first full year, while Channel 4 had a six per cent share. But that was in 1984, before the arrival of satellite and the growth of cable.”

Channel 5 has had to box clever in order to make its cash go further – this has included advertiser-supplied programmes, sponsorships and themed weekends. Much of the credit for this goes to the close relationship between sales director Nick Milligan and programming director Dawn Airey, a partnership which has remained in place since the start of the network.

Channel 5 has influenced the rest of the broadcasting industry in two important ways. Other channels have taken a hard look at the economics of their own programme production after seeing how Channel 5 squeezes costs. The station’s whole use of marketing to establish an identity has convinced management at other networks that it is a necessary skill in TV.

But there is still a view that, despite Channel 5’s great marketing, it’s a shame about its downmarket programmes.

And with the channel’s biggest successes coming from its movies and football coverage, there is a worry that as the price of both climbs higher it will be increasingly difficult to maintain big “appointment-to-view” events.

Airey says: “I readily accept that in year one some of our programmes were not the programming we would like. But the quality of our shows, particularly between 8pm and 9pm, could quite easily live in other network’s schedules. There are still perceptions about the channel that relate to the early days.”

Airey says one aim is to get “lapsed viewers” – those who sampled Channel 5 in its infancy but were disappointed – to give it another try. This is where Channel 5 sees marketing as its weapon.

Hytner has already implemented a new advertising strategy that exploits Channel 5’s positioning as a confident and cheeky underdog. He is now planning on-air promotions that he hopes will say more about Channel 5’s values than simply advertising a forthcoming show.

Hytner says: “If viewers do come back in for a movie or football we have got a very short time to communicate the channel to them. Because of the sort of channel it is, we are not going to have as much appointment-to-view programming as the BBC and ITV.

“I believe what we offer is popular entertainment but with fresh ideas,” he adds.

Channel 5 will continue to grow in its third year – the channel predicts a share of 5.2 per cent for this year and 5.8 per cent for next.

Some of this growth will inevitably come from wider coverage and improvements in picture quality – according to Airey only 60 per cent of the population receives Channel 5 at the same quality as the other channels.

More people will soon be watching Channel 5 some of the time. The challenge, off course, is to make more people watch the station more of the time. All within the context of the tightest of budgets.

Airey says: “We learn by our mistakes. You get to know your audience better. As each year goes by we have one or two hits in the bag that we can build on.

“It’s simply word of mouth, and that takes time.”

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