The broadcaster is gaining viewers and winning new admirers, says Tim Dams. What is it doing right?
British public service broadcasters proved relatively resilient in 2017, despite strong competition from SVoD and other digital distractions.
The best performer was the smallest of the PSBs, Channel 5. The channel’s audience share rose by 2.2% – comfortably ahead of ITV, up 1.2%, and Channel 4, down 0.2%. The audience for Channel 5’s portfolio of channels grew by 5%, led by 5Spike, which jumped by an extraordinary 27%.
The broadcaster’s ratings growth comes at a time when its reputation with producers, critics and viewers is rising, too. Producers, for example, say the channel’s programmes are more cheerful and of better quality than was once the case. They think it feels bright and contemporary, boosted by a colourful rebrand in 2016.
“Channel 5 has got witty, clear and seductive titles – programmes that do what they say on the tin,” says Simon Andreae, CEO of Naked Entertainment, which makes dating show Secret Admirer for the broadcaster. “You know you are going to be told a contemporary story that is pacy and digestible.”
The service’s reputational and ratings growth has been fuelled by increased spending on content since Channel 5 was acquired by Viacom in 2014. This hit £213m in 2016, up from £189m a year earlier, according to Ofcom.
The additional money has allowed the broadcaster to broaden the range of shows it airs while remaining predominantly a factual channel. It has, for example, successfully pushed into upscale BBC Two and Channel 4 territory with natural history (Yorkshire: A Year in the Wild), history (Henry VIII and His Six Wives) and acclaimed docs (The Accused and Slum Britain: 50 Years On).
Additionally, has targeted older audiences with shows such as Cruising with Jane McDonald, generated new formats with the likes of Rich House, Poor House, and has cautiously moved into entertainment with the Blind Date reboot and Lip Sync Battle UK.
Along the way, there have been misses, too, notably Stone Age reality show 10,000 BC – a co-production between Channel 5 and fellow Viacom service MTV.
The focus on creating new titles has helped the channel to increase its share among the advertiser-valuable 16-34 age group and ABC1 audiences, notes Tom Harrington, an analyst at Enders Analysis, who authored a recent report, “Channel 5: Three years on from Viacom’s acquisition”.
His report was broadly positive about the performance of Channel 5, noting that it successfully tussles with Channel 4 in terms of viewing share, despite spending less than half as much on content – Channel 4 spent £533m in 2016.
“Viacom appears to have set Channel 5 along a path of sustainability – no mean feat at a time when the advertising market is uncertain,” says Harrington.
However, his Enders report warned that Channel 5’s VoD service, My5, and its social-media offering “leave much to be desired”. Moreover, its reliance on two major titles, Big Brother and Neighbours, “will be unsustainable in a post-linear world”.
Harrington believes that Channel 5 continues to suffer from a perception problem. This is due both to past programming (even though former Chair and CEO Dawn Airey said Channel 5 was “not just about football, films and fucking”) as well as the tone of much of the current schedule.
He reckons that Channel 5 broadcast more than 1,200 episodes of Can’t Pay? We’ll Take It Away across its various channels in 2017. “Many desirable viewers avoid the channel wholesale”, says Harrington, and notes that it will be “difficult to move away from its traditional audience at any great pace”. In 2011, over a quarter of the channel’s viewing came from what the ONS calls Social Grade E, although this is now falling.
When Viacom acquired Channel 5, many believed that the company would use it as a prominent home for its US-made content. However, Channel 5’s spend on first-run, UK originations rose to £129m in 2016 from £113m a year earlier, according to Ofcom figures.
Channel 5’s director of programmes, Ben Frow, has a reputation as a straight talker and an instinctive ideas man. He has sought to boost the level of commissions since he arrived five years ago. Back then, he says, the channel was in decent shape but very heavily reliant on American acquisitions, such as the CSI franchise and Ice Road Truckers.
“I saw the opportunity to create a channel that had a unique voice, its own personality and that had a much broader range of programming,” says Frow. He set out to diversify the schedule by moving into new genres, and by introducing well-known presenters, such as Jane McDonald, Chris Tarrant, and Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford. “We didn’t really have any faces, but a channel is often defined by faces.”
The broadcaster’s tone has also evolved significantly during Frow’s tenure. “We have had different channels,” he says. When he first arrived, Channel 5 was “quite shouty, we had to make a lot of noise”. There were a lot of one-off documentaries with irreverent titles such as Age Gap Love.
Then came Channel 5’s grittier phase, which spawned a plethora of shows with “benefits” in the title (including Gypsies on Benefits & Proud and Benefits: Too Fat to Work), as well as shows such as The Nightmare Neighbour Next Door.
“They delivered big numbers for us and were very helpful in terms of growing share, but less helpful in terms of our reputation,” admits Frow.
More recently, the channel has moved on. There is a focus on celebratory, aspirational and life-affirming shows, such as The Yorkshire Vet and The Dog Rescuers.
Existing series that were known for being confrontational have been repositioned to celebrate positive outcomes rather than confrontation.
Frow traces the tonal shift to a gut instinct that viewers were after something different in the era of Brexit and Donald Trump: “Suddenly, the world became a very confrontational place. When the world is confrontational, that is not what viewers want to see at home.”
Looking ahead, there are big decisions to come for Channel 5, notably about the future of Big Brother. Ratings have been in decline (the 2017 series was its least-watched to date), and this summer’s series will be the last to run under the three-year contract with Endemol.
Frow has talked in the past about moving on from Big Brother. Certainly, plenty of new shows could be commissioned for the estimated £40m a year that he pays for Big Brother. The downside is that Channel 5 would be left with more than 110 hours of prime-time TV to fill.
Frow says that negotiations over a new contract continue with Endemol. “It is a very expensive show, and I would relish the opportunity to have that money to spend on other things. It is 18 years old, and our schedule has changed. Increasingly, it sits at odds with where I want the channel to be.”
Whether this is a negotiating tactic to reduce Big Brother’s price will soon become clear; after all, the show remains important to Channel 5 because of the high number of commercial impacts it generates among 16- to 34-year-old viewers.
Enders Analysis calculates that, of the top 100 broadcasts on Channel 5 since 2011, 81 of them have been for Celebrity Big Brother and Big Brother.
Elsewhere, Channel 5 is mulling over a move into drama, a genre that is noticeable by its absence on the main channel. Frow is exploring the possibility of commissioning low-cost drama at around £250k an episode.
Meanwhile, he says, 2018 will see a further shift towards feel-good and aspirational programming. He also predicts more growth: “I still don’t believe Channel 5 has reached its potential. I am not interested in managing decline. That is a depressing outlook. We want to be a channel that grows.”