Five’s in digital fold

Brit net's late entries boost core channel

LONDON — Late, but not too late — that is the mantra being chanted by senior execs at battling Channel Five, the terrestrial web that finally turned up at Blighty’s digital party by bowing spin-off webs, Five US and Five Life.

The two upstarts rolled out Oct. 15 and 16. The good news is that this pair of weblets immediately boosted Five’s overall viewing share, up by almost 20% in multi-channel homes.

The bad news is that no one knows how the latest kids on the U.K.’s crowded digital block — between them main competitors the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 have at least eight challenger brands — will perform in the long term.

“Realistically it will take a year for the channels to bed in,” admits Five’s director of digital channels Nick Thorogood. “But I think we’re starting from a position of strength by being a bit late. We can learn from other people’s mistakes.

“We’ve got some great shows which we’re holding back until the brands have become embedded in viewers’ minds.”

Channel Five, 10 years old next March, desperately needs Five US and Five Life to work and so beef up flagging viewing figures at the core channel.

Having a family of channels worked wonders for main rival, Channel 4, although until it went free this year movie web Film4 lost money.

After several years of impressive growth, Five’s audience share is in steep decline — down 10.8% year on year, the biggest drop of all the U.K. terrestrials.

Blighty’s other terrestrial webs began rolling out their digital offspring when Five was barely out of the playpen — ITV2, now the U.K.’s leading upstart web, bowed in 1998.

Five explains the delay on lack of space on digital terrestrial platform, Freeview, and its old dysfunctional ownership structure.

Main owner, pan-European TV giant, RTL, finally bought out minority investor United News and Media’s 35% stake in summer 2005 enabling the injection of some much needed new financing.

Five’s US is inextricably wound up with its savvy purchase of U.S. fare like “House,” “Grey’s Anatomy” and, above all else, exclusive first-run terrestrial rights to the “CSI” franchise, hailed as the planet’s most successful TV show.

Therefore the rationale for rolling out Blighty’s first European-owned channel devoted entirely to U.S. fare is sound.

Says Accenture’s media partner Theresa Wise: “Five has a good record on U.S. shows so attempting to build a spinoff brand on this makes perfect sense strategically.

“Five US will do well, but Five Life (targeted mainly at females under-35) looks more problematic because it’s such a crowded market, but then Five’s CEO, Jane Lighting, used to oversee Living when she ran Flextech so she will be aware of what the challenges are.”

Arguably Five Life’s strongest card is premiering “Home and Away,” the teen soap from Oz that was an early driver of the main channel’s ratings.

Life’s line-up also features a double daily dose of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” plus lifestyle docus — another traditional Five strength — devoted to subjects like health and gardening.

While Five was late in getting in on the digital act, the channels’ launch came in the wake of another initiative that puts the broadcaster somewhere toward the front of the pack.

On Oct. 12, Five rolled out what it hopes will be the first of many so-called transactional video on demand services provided rights can be cleared with U.S. distributors.

For around $4.50 an episode, auds can download “CSI: Miami” a week before transmission on Five.

Services of this kind are in their infancy in the U.K. –Channel 4 began selling downloads of “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” in the spring.

Five acknowledges it is an experimental initiative and if it doesn’t generate enough coin the broadcaster may have to consider ad-funded VOD.

“We need to find out how audiences react and we are quite deliberately testing the water,” says Five strategy topper Charles Constable.

“This is a learning experience for us. There is a lot of life left in conventional linear television, but it would be irresponsible not to try and understand how all this will evolve as we head towards a fully digital world.”

In other words, Five cannot afford to risk missing the boat twice over.

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