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Dawn Airey rejoins Five as cuts loom

TV ad market stagnates in U.K.

Dawn Airey returned to Five on Monday as CEO — and one of her first tasks is expected to be announcing job losses at the channel she helped launch 11 years ago.

 

A spokesman at Blighty’s fifth-rated terrestrial web, owned by RTL, declined to comment on the speculation.

 

But with the economic downturn hitting ad revenues, staffers are preparing for bad news from Airey, who was the first program director when the web, then known as Channel Five, bowed in 1997.

 

Since leaving Five, where she was upped to CEO in 2000, Airey has occupied senior positions at Rupert Murdoch’s U.K. paybox BSkyB and, briefly, at terrestrial giant ITV.

 

Earlier this fall, RTL revealed that Five’s profits for the first six months of the year had been wiped out — falling from £4 million ($6 million) in 2007 to zero due to the cost of launching digital spinoff webs and to a tough ad market.

 

Since then, prospects for ad sales have deteriorated further. Forecasters are predicting that overall U.K. TV ad revenues will be down 5% this year, with another 5% fall predicted for 2009.

 

The smallest of Blighty’s five terrestrial operators, Five desperately needs a period of stability. In the spring, CEO Jane Lighting and her editorial chief, Lisa Opie, quit when it emerged that Airey was rejoining.

 

Five has had three program heads in two years — Dan Chambers, who quit when Opie was appointed; Jay Hunt, poached from the BBC and then persuaded to return as controller of BBC1; and the inexperienced Ben Gale.

 

Rivals ITV and Channel 4 have said they are cutting 20% and 15% of their workforces, respectively.

 

Five issued 20 pinkslips this summer, but bigger cuts are in the cards.