Not for the first time, the Channel 5 content issue is proving more intriguing off-screen than on. The plot in the current saga involves an abortive boardroom coup masquerading as a crusade against smut. The cast features a number of big names – Richard Eyre, Lord Hollick, David Elstein and Jim Hytner among them. Even the dialogue, so far as it has escaped the censor’s pen, is authentically blue.
What happened was that Eyre, who – as the most senior UK executive of C5’s major shareholder RTL – had high hopes of becoming the TV channel’s chairman, made the mistake of publicly announcing some expensive programme reforms designed to improve C5’s image and ratings. The reaction was outrage – from C5’s senior management, who were unaware of these radical adjustments to their strategy, and, more ominously, from Lord Hollick, whose United News & Media holds the other 35 per cent of C5.
Hollick evidently believed his company had been shanghaied into subscribing about &£30m towards Eyre’s investment programme. The result was summary and severe – Eyre has been made to look either arrogant or foolish; his candidature as C5 chairman has been blocked sine die.
The spat raises a number of issues, one of them about the standing of Eyre himself. Since leaving ITV, where he performed some remarkable conjuring tricks, the old magic seems to have deserted him. In replacing Greg Dyke at Pearson, he soon discovered he was heading a company that no longer existed. The merger of Pearson’s and Luxembourg-based CLT-Ufa’s television interests may have made strategic sense, but it left Eyre as number three in an enlarged company, RTL, where his redefined responsibilities were far from clear. In fact, the only certainty seemed a plan to appoint him chairman of C5, where he is well-suited to play a pivotal role.
C5 has done well to achieve the profitability and share of viewers it has, considering its minuscule programme budget. But it has some serious problems, which Eyre’s proposed investment of &£80m could do much to solve. Lack of money, remember, meant it lost Big Brother to Channel Four (still a prickly issue in the C5 marketing department).
Sensibly invested, a cash injection could also help to erase the Channel Filth reputation that has so endeared it to the tabloids. It might even attract more personality to C5 – sadly lacking since the defection of Kirsty Young to ITV. All this at a time when ITV’s performance is looking appetisingly weak for competitors and there is a real need for more quality TV.
This is not the only reason why the row over Eyre’s chairmanship seems futile and misplaced. Hollick will, so he says, shortly be disposing of his stake in C5 – to RTL, which will then hold the trump card in any future discussions about who chairs C5. An irony, indeed, if Eyre were no longer there to play that role.
What a pity RTL didn’t communicate its strategy a little more delicately.