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Raymond Snoddy 

Joining the ranks of the PSBs

Joining the ranks of the PSBs

After Channel 5's Maria Kyriacou opened this week's VLV Autumn Conference, Ray Snoddy assesses the station's place in the corridors of public service broadcasting

Channel 5’s founding chief executive, Dawn Airey entered media folklore when she said her channel was about the "three Fs – films, football and fucking.”

Except that she didn’t. Airey said something markedly different.

The TV executive who now chairs the National Youth Theatre and a number of women’s football organisations, actually said that Channel 5 “was about more than the three Fs.”

Yet search for her name, and the mis-quote still pops up.

Over the years, Channel 5 was a channel that never quite made it. RTL failed to reach its 10% viewing share target before selling to Richard Desmond for £103.5 million a decade ago.

Apart from providing a home for Celebrity Big Brother, Neighbours and hordes of film, if not football, Desmond’s finest achievement was the £450 million he got from Viacom for the channel four years later, soon after awarding himself a special £69 million dividend.

The Americans had come, surely the first landfall of a U.S television invasion of the commercial arm of UK public service broadcasting (PSB).

Viacom, the home of MTV and Nickelodeon, would surely flood its schedules with hand-me-down American programmes to try to earn back the rather stiff purchase price.

Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, there has been a gradual transformation and the nearly channel, Channel 5, fifth in every respect, has become as much a British PSB as those bigger channels, which have traditionally worn the badge.

There are now serious, high-quality documentaries on Channel 5, and original British drama such as All Creatures Great and Small – which first came to life on BBC television and regularly pulled in audiences of more than five million.

Original programmes for young children are broadcast five days a week, more than any of the other PSBs.

Audiences have started to notice and the word-of-mouth is strong. You can now hear people say, with an element of surprise, 'did you see that programme on Channel 5 last night?'

For the first time in its near quarter of a century history, the runt of the television litter has also started to win channel of the year awards - Edinburgh TV Festival, RTS and Broadcast for goodness sake.

In difficult times for the PSBs, Channel 5’s stats tell a heartening tale – at least before Covid disrupted the economics of all commercial broadcasters.

Under long-serving director of programmes Ben Frew, audience share has grown by 5% this year and the channel has had its highest share of ABC1s since 2010.

UK origination has risen by 40% since the Viacom acquisition and more than 2,000 hours of original programmes were commissioned last year.

In digital, My5 has had a 50% uplift in on-demand viewing.

It is still the smallest of the UK PSBs and very vulnerable to a downturn in spot advertising revenue. Along with ITV and Channel 4, the Covid crisis knocked 40% off Channel 5’s advertising revenues.

In common with all existing broadcasters, Channel 5 will inevitably face growing headwinds from the international SVODs, such as Netflix and Amazon, which appear to have received a significant boost to viewing figures during the pandemic lockdowns.

However, it was still a symbolic moment when Maria Kyriacou, president of ViacomCBS network’s operations in Australia, Israel and the UK, opened this week's online autumn conference of the Voice of the Viewer and Listener (VLV).

I can’t recall anyone from Channel 5 being invited to speak at the VLV before. The opening slot usually goes to the likes of the chairman of the BBC or the chief executive of ITV, or a political panjandrum.

Kyriacou, who arrived in her present post in February, was able to point to the fact that Channel 5 now accounts for one in eight hours of factual programmes, broadcast across the five main PSB channels – not including more than 500 hours a year of popular current affairs under the Jeremy Vine Show banner.

“What Channel 5’s transformation underlines is that to succeed in the UK, it is essential to compete on quality,” argued Kyriacou, who is British and used to work for ITV Studios.

But the Viacom executive also had a warning, which applies to all of the UK’s PSBs.

As digital continues to fragment the market and threatens to undermine the economics of mainstream media, there is still a danger that the more nuanced stories will get lost – those that best reflect and reinforce local cultures.

So for Kyriacou, as well as the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, there is an urgent need for government action to do something - at least to even up the playing field with the international SVODs.

The last time there was significant broadcasting legislation in the UK was nearly 20 years ago when Netflix was a company delivering DVDs by post.

The top brass of the PSBs co-authored a letter to The Times last week pointing out that the UK’s creative industries are truly world-leading, generate £110 billion a year for the economy and will be one of the engines pulling the country out of a post-Covid recession.

The PSBs invest £2.5 billion a year in original, home-grown production but are in danger of being sidelined by the great high-tech search engines. A lack of visibility in the new world could, over time prove to be existential for the PSBs.

Above all, they want the Government to act on two Ofcom recommendations.

The first is that there should be updates to prominence legislation to ensure that British public service content can still be easily found in the age of on-demand and internet TV.

The second is that there should be further legislation to ensure that PSB channels should be included or “carried” on all major  content platforms.

Such action would cost the Government nothing and would help to protect the future of an industry which is punching above its weight in international markets.

The Government would be wise to act the moment the peak of the Covid/Brexit crisis has passed.

Inside the television industry, can Channel 5 continue to punch above its weight?

Probably, but only if it continues to innovate and migrate more towards on-demand viewing as spot advertising continues to decline.

At the very least, Channel 5 is no longer limited to the three Fs. If there were any more suitable letters that best sum up the channel, astonishingly it can now claim they are PSB.

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