C5 retuning campaign bids to overcome consumer concerns

As the C5 video retuning exercise gets under way the new channel must combat ‘dirty tricks’ and public fears to build its brand. By Nick Higham. Nick Higham is BBC TV’s media correspondent

Greg Dyke once called it a “burglar’s charter” – but that was when he was boss of a rival ITV company, not himself a director of Channel 5. The new channel’s boss, Ian Ritchie, described it as “one of the most complex operations of its kind ever undertaken in the UK”.

It is, of course, the business of sending engineers round to some 9.6 million homes to retune video recorders which are likely to suffer interference from the new channel’s transmitters once they are switched in January.

Dyke envisaged a nightmare situation in which scores of cowboys turned up on the doorsteps of little old ladies offering to take the video out to the van to retune it, only to disappear with the machine in a cloud of dust.

Not surprisingly, considerable time and effort at C5 has gone into ensuring that doesn’t happen. Security devices abound: uniforms, ID cards, security numbers, a free-phone call centre.

The returning will be heralded with a direct mail drop to every affected household and a marketing campaign – advertising breaks this week and will extend to 3,000 poster sites by September – budgeted at 5m in the first two months alone.

C5 wants the public to be in no doubt what to expect, so that little old ladies can spot the cowboys a mile off.

It has enough poor publicity to deal with already – some of it courtesy of ITV. C5 executives mutter darkly about a “dirty tricks” campaign, which has encompassed a set of 50 questions (circulated by Carlton) for advertising agencies to ask the new channel, and a telephone survey of residents of Wallington in Surrey – the area chosen for a two-month pilot retuning exercise.

That showed, according to ITV, that fewer than half the videos in homes approached by C5 had been successfully retuned. The biggest problem, and one that C5 acknowledges, was finding viewers in when the retuners called.

The director of the ITV Association, Barry Cox, denies any dirty tricks – but says ITV has a legitimate commercial interest in its rival’s progress. He also points out that this is the time of year when many advertising campaigns are negotiated – which perhaps helps explain ITV’s decision to leak the findings of its results.

C5 won’t say whether ITV’s research figures tally with its own for the Wallington pilot. Nor will it say how much it is planning to spend on retuning. The figure in its original licence application was reportedly 55m – much less than rival bidders.

This has almost certainly gone up. Originally the channel planned to employ 6,000 retuners. Now the figure is 7,000. Ritchie in effect says the channel will spend whatever it takes to make sure the job gets done.

And the situation’s not all bad. As Ritchie and his marketing director, David Brook, point out, one thing C5 shouldn’t have to worry about come the end of the year is low awareness.

In publicising the retuning exercise the channel could have gone for a Government public service-style approach and dire warnings about the consequences of failing to get your video seen to. It didn’t.

“You can do these things by the carrot as well as the stick, and we’ve definitely chosen the carrot,” says Brook. The bright vertical colour bars which characterise the creative work are supposed to convey a bright positive image.

The campaign, with its “Give me 5” slogan, has been created by Saatchi & Saatchi, which successfully ran the National Lottery’s launch advertising, building awareness of an entirely new brand with enormous speed, as it will have to do for C5.

Granada (or at least its TV rental and hotel and catering divisions) has been recruited as a partner in the exercise, offering technical advice and publicity. So have Thorn Homeserver and Blockbuster Video.

C5, uniquely among terrestrial TV channels, will have built a one-to-one relationship with its customers – although the contact is likely to be brief (an average of 22 minutes, it hopes) and it’s hard to see how it can build on that subsequently.

In the long run, Brook promises a “modern mainstream” positioning for the channel, neither traditional nor minority interest. He also says its on- and off-screen promotional activities will be co-ordinated much more closely than other terrestrial channels’.

The disadvantage now is that there’s no guarantee the launch campaign for the channel proper, scheduled for the end of the year, and the on-screen identity will reflect the look and style of the retuning campaign (which Brook describes as an “interim positioning”).

Perhaps strangely for a brand eager to build awareness rapidly, there are no immediate plans to use TV. No doubt C5 thinks it would end up paying through the nose as its rivals took advantage – but if retuning starts to go awry between now and Christmas, it may be forced to bite the bullet.

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