New head must prove he means business

LONDON — Last week, Ben Gale, a 41-year-old middle-ranking producer and commissioner, arrived at his desk at Five, the smallest of Blighty’s terrestrial broadcasters, to begin work as its program topper.

Under normal circumstances this would be a tough job. All channels are hurting as the competition from old and new media intensifies. Five, arguably the least robust of the five terrestrial stations, is suffering along with the rest.

But these are not normal circumstances.

Earlier this month, Five CEO Jane Lighting and content head Lisa Opie ankled after the station’s owner, RTL Group, announced it had rehired Dawn Airey, Five’s former CEO and its first program head when the web bowed in 1997.

In her new dual role as chairman and chief executive, Airey has unprecedented power. Her appointment may be an attempt to give Five the strong brand identity that, by common consent, it lacks but certainly had back in 1998 when Airey described the sked as ruled by the “three Fs: films, fucking and football.”

Gale’s job is doubly difficult because Airey is unlikely to start work until next spring, because her old employer, ITV, seems intent on making her work off her one-year notice.

In the short term, Gale needs to show colleagues, his suppliers (Blighty’s indie producers) and, crucially, audiences and advertisers, that he means business.

The peculiar thing is that despite the vacant seats on the executive floor, Five is having a relatively good season following a rocky ride that saw the station’s share fall in recent times from 6.4% in 2003 to 5.3% last year.

The upturn is principally because Five has rebuilt its schedule around that old chestnut of a teen soap, “Neighbours,” which Lighting wisely poached from the BBC.

Also winning supporters is a recharged nightly newscast anchored by one of Blighty’s most glamorous presenters, Natasha Kaplinksy. Even a cynic like ex-Endemol creative head Peter Bazalgette recently singled her out for bringing a much-needed, modern touch to staid old TV news.

Five’s audience share is holding up pretty well — 5.2% against 5.3% a year ago, a better performance than terrestrial commercial giant ITV1 or pubcasters BBC2 and Channel 4.

This decent showing is helped by a strong portfolio of U.S. imports led by the “CSI” franchise and bolstered by fashionable fare including “House” and “Californication.”

Domestic shows have always been, to put it mildly, hit and miss on Five. Earlier experiments with expensive genres like drama and comedy (Five’s quirky brothel-set sitcom “Respectable” went the way of all flesh) appear to have been abandoned.

These days, the emphasis is on factual programming, including the “Rough Guide” series, “How Do They Do It?” and “Ice Road Truckers.”

This is where Gale’s skills could come in handy. His credits at the BBC, where he was most recently commissioning editor for factual features and formats, include the BAFTA-winning BBC reality skein “The Choir.”

Earlier, as an indie working at Wall to Wall, he edited the first season of celebrity genealogy series “Who Do You Think You Are?” subsequently a hit in Blighty for BBC1 and now being adapted in the U.S. by NBC.

Whether Gale will be able — or allowed — to nurture such shows at Five is a matter of conjecture. But with the channel in such a state of flux pending Airey’s arrival, the chances of him making the best of his talents look slim.

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