5 at five – will go far, with funding

It’s a funny old world. As Sir Galahads go, Channel 5 is a fairly improbable one to be riding to the rescue of beleaguered digital terrestrial television (DTT). But that’s the rumour – whether side by side with the serried ranks of ITV and the BBC, or in an act of individual derring-do.

Not so long ago, C5 more closely resembled the damsel in distress – a damsel with a pretty besmirched reputation at that. The incomprehensible hyperbole of its ‘modern mainstream’ positioning, trumpeted at its launch, soon crystallised into a dreary diet of Cheggers capering in the nude, football matches from countries of which we knew nothing, and deadbeat B-movies. ‘Mainstream’ alone was a bit of a joke, in view of the debilitating distribution problems dogging the channel.

Laugh no more, however. C5 is the TV success story of a dismal year; an appropriate achievement to mark its fifth birthday. While viewing figures for the other commercial TV channels have at best stagnated, C5’s are soaring: 5.9 per cent last year; 6.6 per cent so far this year. The performance is mirrored elsewhere. Exceptionally, C5’s revenues continue to climb: they are expected to reach &£220m this year, giving it just under 8 per cent of the market.

However, though this is an astonishing performance, industry pundits think the channel will have trouble keeping up the momentum. In this light, C5’s cordial support for a continuing DTT platform makes good sense. After all, DTT would solve what has, until now, been a pretty intractable problem, by providing high-quality reception in the affluent South-east, the absence of which has proved a nasty sticking point with media buyers.

But the problems don’t end there. While C5 has performed extraordinarily well against Channel 4, which spends nearly three times as much on programmes yet claims only ten per cent of viewers, the fact remains that a programme budget of only &£149m is woefully inadequate for C5’s self-appointed task of creating a ‘channel of choice.’

Nor are the means of achieving further significant funding immediately apparent. The dead hand of Lord Hollick – a 35 per cent stakeholder in C5, who wants to go but evidently won’t until the price is right – is staying investment. Rumours, following the publication of the Communications Bill, have been swirling about an eventual takeover by Rupert Murdoch. But at present they remain just that – rumours – and cannot even be said to fall into the wishfulfilment category, since ownership by Murdoch would likely raise as many issues as it solved.

The best C5 can hope for at the moment is that its revised marketing strategy, designed to establish it as a more mature and considered player, feeds through into a significant revenue premium in the coming year.

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