Limited reception may temper the spicy launch of Channel 5

After a good start, C5 badlly needs to increase the number of homes that can actually receive the transmission.

Channel 5’s honeymoon with the press did not last long – roughly 24 hours – but in many ways it was lucky to get one at all. When Channel 4 launched, it was greeted with scorn for attracting only 4 million viewers.

Yet C5’s first figures were applauded, with headlines such as “C5 chiefs are on a high”, “5 put one over on 4”, “C5 wins over first night audience” and “First night coup for TV newcomer as a touch of Spice brings in 2.3m”. One tabloid drooled: “A bumper 2.3 million viewers tuned in on Sunday evening to watch the pop babes launch Britain’s first terrestrial channel for 15 years.”

On a high? 2.3 million? Bumper?

Cynics will point out that some of these reports appeared in the Daily Star, owned by Lord Hollick’s United News & Media, a major shareholder in C5. But the others were in The Mirror, the Mail and The Times, which owed the new channel no favours.

In truth, it wasn’t a bad performance. C5’s share in peak-time was 5.8 per cent, higher than its end-of-year target and ahead of C4’s share for the night. Indeed, the papers understated its success, because the first leaks of the overnight ratings were wrong: the Spice Girls actually attracted 2.6 million viewers.

That was the honeymoon. But having built the newcomer up, the papers only took a day to knock it down.

“Viewers desert C5”, “C5 viewers slump by half”, “C5 not quite so spicy on day two”, “5 dives” and “C5 dive to 300,000 audience”, ran the headlines the next day. All reported that the station’s peaktime share had fallen to 2.7 per cent and that the soap Family Affairs had seen its audience drop from 1.5 million to 300,000.

What did they expect? The first-day novelty was bound to wear off, it was a Bank Holiday Monday, and the BBC and ITV had brought out some big guns: two slices of Eastenders, Before They Were Famous, Coronation Street, The Bill and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.

On day three (last Tuesday), C5 recovered some ground, with the nine o’clock film My Stepmother Was An Alien attracting 1.6 million viewers. On Wednesday its share fell again, and on Thursday it pulled back some more, with the film Memoirs of an Invisible Man getting a nine per cent share.

Sensibly, neither C5 nor its advertisers are getting too excited about these fluctuations. The channel has always said it wanted to wait at least two weeks before coming to any conclusions. “It’s an artificial first week” says its research manager Daniel Cave. “It’s Easter, the schools are on holiday and ITV has been running a special schedule as a spoiler.”

But C5 has a serious problem: it has no clear idea how many of the viewers who should be able to see it can actually do so. It believes its signals should be reaching 60 per cent of homes, rising to 80 per cent by the end of the year. But many homes have not yet tuned in their sets and many others are getting poor pictures, which may or may not be improved by the purchase of a new aerial.

Phone-in programmes last week were dominated by people complaining they couldn’t get the new channel. But, on the plus side, some homes have got good reception in areas where it was thought C5 would never be received.

Given this uncertainty, can we believe the overnight ratings at all? BARB and the TV research professionals say we can, because the BARB panel – at over 4,000 homes – is so large that it will provide the most accurate measure of C5 reception. But don’t BARB engineers tune in the sets of their panel members to make sure they get a good picture? No, they don’t. And in the case of C5 they have been rigorous about not doing so.

“We’ve protected the panel and done nothing to prompt them at all” says BARB’s director Bill Meredith. “If they’ve asked about C5, we’ve simply given them the channel’s own helpline number, so BARB can represent the true state of reception.”

But though BARB may give a good picture of C5 nationally, it will find it harder to do so by ITV region. This is more important to the ITV companies, which must sell airtime against it by region, than it is to C5 itself, which sells nationally. According to Carat Insight, the overnight ratings already show viewing in the North of England is ten times the level in the South.

C5’s national penetration figure won’t be known for several months, when the next stage of the BARB establishment survey is ready. Regionally, it will take much longer. In the meantime, C5 awaits with some trepidation its first “reach” figure: what proportion of the population is watching at all during a week or month? Some in the industry guess it could be as low as 30 per cent.

The problem for C5 then will be how to increase the figure. It must persuade viewers not only to press button five, but to make sure their sets can receive the signal. And if those viewers didn’t get around to it last week, with all the pre-launch hype, what will induce them to do so later?

One answer is the World Cup tie between England and Poland on May 31, followed by the England-Argentina rugby international. The good news for C5 is that millions of viewers will be keen to tune in their sets for these games. The bad news is that those who find they can’t get a picture – or have to buy a new aerial – will be exceedingly annoyed.

I can see the headlines already, and they include the words “five”, “live” and “deprive”.

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