I remember very clearly watching the opening of Channel Five in 1997. I was sitting in my loft on a March evening looking at what looked like a luminescent test card behind a faint fuzz of interference. It’s worth noting that I was actually one of the lucky few that could see the unveiling of the new channel back then: only 65% of the country were able to even receive the signal at the time. Just shy of 2.5 million people watched the Spice Girls sing a version of ‘5-4-3-2-1’ and with that terrestrial television changed.
Ultimately, it wasn’t up to much. Channel Five back then started on a wing and a prayer and hope that it’d be something new and exciting. What it ended up being was dowdy, trashy TV which showed little of interest to – well, anyone, but especially a 7-12 year old boy – beyond Martial Law (average kung-fu), softcore porn and third-rate football. One thing that Five must be blamed for is inflicting Jonathan Pearce on the world, complete with his foghorn calling of goals. And all of it was still seen behind that faint fuzz of snow until we invested in digital television.
It looks like Five (rebranded in 2002 to little fanfare), currently owned by German broadcaster RTL, might return to that ignominious past. It’s losing money hand over fist (£39 million last year alone) and the Germans want out for the cut price of £100m. Richard Desmond, porn mogul and owner of the Express Newspapers Group, has reached a final shortlist of prospective bidders for the fifth major channel in British television.
If he ends up owning the channel, it looks like it might return to the softcore porn model (after all, it’s what Desmond knows best), coupled with elements of his other major franchise, OK! Magazine. We’ll probably see celebrity features and fly-on-the-wall documentaries, and possibly a cut-back on Five’s burgeoning sports portfolio.
The other bidders in the auction organised by JP Morgan could be just as bad. Endemol, creator of Big Brother and Deal or No Deal, have expressed an interest. Five could likely become the reality TV and gameshow channel were Endemol to win, based on past experience of their forays into the UK tv market.
Media entrepreneur John de Mol (who also was deeply involved in Big Brother but has since split from Endemol) has teamed up with Antenna TV from Greece to tender a bid too. Perhaps the most beneficial prospective bidders would be Warner, NBC and BSkyB, all of whom have history in producing high-quality television products. The risk with BSkyB is that they would subsume Five into the Sky family of channels and increase yet further their market share of the British television market, a prospect which is already worrying free-to-air TV proponents given Sky’s earlier purchase of the Virgin1 channel on the Freeview platform. They fear that Sky will take a large chunk of the free television channels and place them on a subscription service, decreasing the diversity of television available to those not wanting to pay money.
If all goes according to plan, by March of next year Five will be in new hands – and the face of British television might change once again, thanks to its newest terrestrial channel that started with so much promise and failed to deliver.
Who would you like to see buy Five? Tell me in the comments below.