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Where do you start a review of a television station? That’s the thought going through my mind as I sit down and compile some thoughts about Channel 5. The main reason I’m writing this is that it occurred to me the other day that I seem to be spending a greater proportion of my time watching Channel 5, compared to the other terrestrial television channels. As you are most probably aware, Channel 5 was launched a few years ago – the first independent terrestrial television channel launch since Channel 4 in the 1980s. The station’s launch was given a lukewarm greeting by the press – most notably because availability of reception was sporadic at best, but also because of the slightly down market range of television programmes available to users. There are things that I like about Channel 5 – and there are things that I don’t. A recent poll indicated that Channel 5 has the fastest growing audience of any terrestrial television station – it is gradually catching up with Channel 4’s market share. Here’s a run down of some of my thoughts about why this might be and what they need to do to escalate their status.
AVAILABILITY AND RECEPTION
One of the biggest controversies surrounding Channel 5 at the time of its launch was the much-publicised problem with availability. Residents of major towns and cities were generally able to receive Channel 5, but there was confusion over whether you needed to have your television set adapted or whether the station was available in your area. As far as I am aware, Channel 5 is generally available across most of the UK now – of all my addresses of the last few years, I have been able to receive Channel 5 without any problem. I suspect that there is still a considerable lack of consumer faith in this station though. Those areas that have been migrated into the Channel 5 reception areas may well not be aware of the fact and the station lost lots of potential viewers by complicating the “Can we get it?” questions. I think that as time has gone on, viewers have gradually cottoned on to the fact that Channel 5 is out there, and are gradually getting used to selecting the station.
My Channel 5 pet hate is without a doubt the intensely irritating little 5 symbol that sits perpetually in the top left hand side of the television screen whilst you are watching the station. This concept seems to be born from the American free fall of television channels, which continually need to remind the viewers of what they are watching. I find it very distracting, and whilst it may have been appropriate at the time of the channel’s launch, I think it is probably now time to turn it off. It gives the station a rather trashy look and feel and probably puts a lot of people off. It’s interesting to note that it disappears during the adverts. Hmmm.
Channel 5’s greatest strength for me is stability – from one week to the next, you really do known where you are with Channel 5. I find fewer things more irritating than television schedulers who swap programmes around, changing times, days – and in the case of the BBC – even channels. A good case in point of this would be The X Files, which has switched around more times than the points at Clapham Junction. Television bosses really should wake up to the fact that the viewing public really wants to be reassured that their favourite programmes are always on at the same time. Whilst there needs to be some flexibility for sports coverage or special events, Channel 5 seems to be able to minimise this – whereas the BBC seem to have made a career out of it.
Channel 5 have identified that at any time there are plenty of drifting viewers around, who will be looking for something else to watch if their beloved soap or drama series has been postponed or re-scheduled. I suspect this is where the growth in audience is coming from. Channel 5 also seem to schedule a minimal amount of sport, which is the main cause of programme changes on ITV1 and BBC1. If you’re not a big fan of sport (like me) then the chances are that at certain times of the week, Channel 5 will pick up your custom.
The only disadvantage to this is that it does not breed viewer loyalty. If I’m honest, I can’t think of anything on Channel 5 that I would watch regularly (CSI perhaps, when able) and Channel 5 is always the “I’m bored” option.
VARIETY OF PROGRAMMING
Channel 5 probably screens the widest variety of programmes of any terrestrial station. Alongside main stream programmes like the soaps (Family Affairs, Home and Away) you will find documentaries, historical programmes, films, game shows, erotica and much more. It really is the strangest mixture of styles and tones, but this means that it appeals to quite a big cross-section of the public. The scheduling is often quite unconventional – whilst Coronation Street is on ITV1, you’ll probably find a true crime series or historical documentary on Channel 5. This probably another reason that the channel is starting to experience success. As BBC1 dumbs itself down to appeal to the masses that have overtaken ITV1, BBC2 has started to lose its intellectual content to the cable channel BBC 4 and Channel 4 has become completely obsessed with Big Brother and Friends. This means that for the poor few who don’t want to watch soaps or American sit-coms, there aren’t many alternatives. It seems to me that Channel 5 works on the premise that the channel cannot possibly compete with the top shows on the big two channels, and will instead try to cater for other tastes at key times.
Channel 5 also has an increasingly healthy investment in its own shows, opting out of the easy option that Channel 4 and BBC2 undertake, by buying up everything with an American flag behind it. This means that many of the programmes are quite experimental – even if not entirely successful. Channel 5 has also realised that an English audience responds badly to American narration – so they buy up the SKY TV shows and then re-narrate them – cheap and instantly more credible. I think Channel 5 do a superb job of providing 24-hour programming that is varied and wide-reaching. Of course, whether it is any good, is another matter.
QUALITY OF PROGRAMMING
Channel 5’s early advertising campaign was driven by its huge investment in films. The home movie market is extremely lucrative, so exclusive film premieres will always draw big audiences. From the outset, Channel 5 seemed to pouring all their cash into the movies – and this continues now (Channel 5 has already bought up the terrestrial rights to show Spider-Man). Sadly, this investment has often been to the detriment of other programmes and it would be fair to say that many of Channel 5’s shows are low budget, low calibre dross. Channel 5’s lack of credibility has stemmed from the immediate audience reaction to their choice of programmes (does anyone remember Keith Chegwin naked??) and they now have an uphill struggle to reverse the tide of opinion.
Their news coverage is trashy – the early evening bulletin is a strange blend of information and debate, with all the presenters and guests perched uncomfortably against a bar in a garish studio. Although the appeal is supposed to be youthful, it tends to drive away many serious viewers who don’t want bright lights with everything. At the other end of the spectrum is the assault on the erotica market, with smutty game shows and late night movies. It’s all terribly amateur – and terribly dull – and whilst it has been an attention-grabber up until now, I think it is something that the station now needs to move away from.
There are some exceptions to the rule. The station’s acquisition of BBC2’s entire Top Gear team was a stroke of genius, which has resulted in Jeremy Clarkson being hastily drafted back into the BBC2 show. Some of the crime and history shows are informative and well put together and I think the teen schedules work quite well at the weekend. Perhaps the most lucrative challenge will be to acquire/spawn a peak time soap monster like Eastenders or Coronation Street. Family Affairs doesn’t seem to have done this – but you can bet your bottom dollar that somebody somewhere is working on something.
Channel 5 is “the browser’s choice”. When all the other stations are full of sport, Channel 5 probably has something completely different. The downside to this is that the station lacks identity. Channel 4 is youthful, BBC2 is cultist, ITV1 is downmarket. Channel 5 needs to establish a proper niche and identity for itself.
I can only watch it through Sky but at least now they've got rid of the logo which was annoying. It also only called Five as if it makes much difference. I'll be watching it more though for Live With Chris Moyles
Honey_Bee 21.08.2002 18:30
I have to say I dont watch channel 5 that often, but dont actually believe its that bad as people make out, and I agree about the 5 symbol in the corner, it is very annoying!! :o) x
29th_Candidate 21.08.2002 15:07
You UKers are lucky to get another "independent... I think it would be simply out of this world if we got an extra terrestrial here in Los Angeles... Sorry phil, frightful though that previous sentence might have been, it was just a matter of time before someone jumped on that pathetic bit of wordplay and I thought it best to exorcise the demon straightaway... Well, I better go before I run outer space... --29th