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How the U.K.’s Channel 5 Is Reinventing Itself With Historical Fare

When Viacom bought Channel 5 five years ago, the station was wholly dependent on U.S. acquisitions such as the “CSI” franchise, but times have changed greatly in those few years. Now, while many broadcasters express anxieties over the perceived threat from global tech behemoths, the U.K.’s third biggest commercial TV network, Channel 5, has reinvented itself by going local.

“Acquisitions aren’t cheap,” says program director Ben Frow. “You get into a bidding war with other channels, you get a license period. People don’t want to watch 22 hours of television anymore. Those days are over.”

Channel 5 even had the confidence to drop “Big Brother,” a move that undoubtedly caused some jangled nerves at Viacom. Yet, the station has been profitable for the past four years and is gaining in credibility.

Last year Channel 5 programs were nominated at the Royal Television Society and Grierson Awards, as well as earning international awards at Assn. for Intl. Broadcasting and the Venice TV Awards. It won a first BAFTA (“Cruising With Jane McDonald”), and it was voted Channel of the Year at the Edinburgh TV Awards.

And while the original shows Channel 5 made used to focus heavily on “poverty porn” reality series such as “The Great British Benefits Handout,” as well as those focusing on obese individuals (“My Gastric Band Ruined My Life,” “Saving Britain’s 70-Stone Man”), in the age of Brexit and Donald Trump, Frow believes viewers need cheering up. Although they still deal in sober, 90-minute specials tackling challenging topics such as domestic violence and rape, Frow says a new content goal for the year is to be “life-affirming, feel-good.”

Frow notes they will also concentrate on programs that are resolutely local in appeal, as well. Few months go by without at least one Channel 5 show being inspired by the never-ending soap that is the Windsors. Two recent programs featured Meghan Markle, the actress who married Prince Harry and became the duchess of Sussex. More are planned.

“We are very nimble and very instinctive. We look at the competition and change our schedule every week so we can provide that alternative,” says Frow, who claims that his team can turn around a show in 10 days once it is greenlit.

Believing “the best ideas are the simplest,” Frow recently took one such idea, hiring “Monty Python” star Michael Palin to see if his “actor charm” would win over locals, regardless of region, and brought him to North Korea. The ploy paid off: The two-part docu, “Michael Palin in North Korea,” was critically acclaimed and the most-watched show in its time slot.

With a small budget (some way north of $265 million, including spin-off channels) and ad revenue affected by Brexit-induced economic jitters, the editorial changes make commercial sense, as well.

“We always have to provide an alternative to our rivals. On a limited budget like ours it makes sense to do factual, whether it’s lifestyle, history or natural history.”

One of the newest projects is a series that re-imagines Henry VIII as Donald Trump. “As a Buddhist,” Frow says, “I believe in reincarnation. Donald Trump is Henry VIII reincarnated.”

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