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Five leaps digital divide

But it is too little, too late, for Blighty web?

LONDON — Short-term fix or long-term power play?

Blighty’s terrestrial web Five is attempting to raise its game by launching two digital spinoff channels — but skeptics continue to ponder the net’s future.

Since Five bowed nine years ago, speculation regarding a takeover or merger has been rife.

Industryites figured Five was vulnerable because its co-owners — pan-European media giant RTL and the U.K.’s United Business Media — disagreed over direction.

The network was unable to win coin to develop a digital plan while terrestrial rivals ITV and Channel 4 plowed millions into building digital portfolios.

All that has changed.

Last September, RTL bought UBM’s stake in Five — and preparations are under way for the £40 million ($72 million) launch of Five U.S., a male-skewed channel devoted to U.S. imports, and Five Life, a lifestyle web aimed at femmes and younger children.

It is, according to Five’s CEO Jane Lighting, the channel’s biggest splash since its birth.

But is the move too little too late? “I’m not trying to make excuses,” Lighting recently told the London Times, “but we are only 9 years old. What was Channel 4 doing when it was 10 — showing reruns of ‘Man About the House’ (a decidedly unhip British sitcom). Give us a chance to catch up.”

In fact, given the competition and Five’s late arrival at the digital party, it could be performing a lot worse than it is.

For the third year running, it turned a profit last year, returning $58 million to RTL and UBM’s coffers.

Its all-hours audience share so far this year is 5.2%, down against 2005’s 6.5%, but all five U.K. terrestrial webs are squeezed by the success of cable and satellite TV.

“Five has a decent brand,” opines Accenture media partner Theresa Wise. “Having moved upmarket, it’s got some fantastic programming. It buys intelligently, as shows like ‘CSI,’ ‘House’ and ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ have shown.

“Launching the digital channels will help, but running a family of channels is the least Five can do to protect its competitive position and build the brand,” Wise says, adding: “As a publisher-broadcaster, Five is vulnerable to rights inflation, and it still looks vulnerable to takeover. It wouldn’t be a shock if ITV eventually bought Five.”

So can an all-U.S. channel work for Five? Channel 4 ditched the idea, reasoning that securing rights to big shows would be expensive and might compromise other parts of C4’s activities — such as digital web E4 — that rely on U.S. material.

Despite the recent ratings slump, Lighting remains upbeat.

“We’re doing better across most key demographics than Channel 4 or ITV — our profile of (top earners) is up 10% …,” she says. “On 16- to 34-year-olds, we’re not doing as well as Channel 4 but much better than ITV.”

Five claims the digital weblets build on traditional strengths — factual entertainment and shows for pre-schoolers, aired in the early morning Milkshake strand, plus U.S. fare. Around half its annual $378 million program budgets is spent in Hollywood.

The digital channels are not “the end of Five’s expansion plans.”

Five’s programming strategy — axing veteran soap “Family Affairs,” buying fewer but higher-quality Hollywood movies, beefing up British-made drama and comedy — are welcomed by critics.

Upcoming are “Tripping Over,” a twentysomething serial from Mike Bullen, the writer of widely praised ITV1 show “Cold Feet,” and sitcom “Respectable,” a story of unrequited love set in a brothel.

But subtract U.S. skeins “CSI” and “House” plus Oz import “Home and Away,” and nine years in, Five’s ability to nurture breakout hits remains lackluster.

“It all depends on how you define a hit these days. We have a lot of returning series and established faces on the channel,” maintains a Five spokesman.

“Not many shows on any U.K. terrestrial channel can deliver an audience of 10 million. What’s Channel 4 got? ‘Deal or No Deal.’ It might be a big hit, but essentially it’s watched by pensioners.”

That might sound ageist, but if Five’s digital ambitions are to succeed, they will need the hard-to-reach 16- to 35-year-olds.

Even that may not be enough to stave off a takeover.

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