×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

Popular on Variety

More TV

  • J. Michael Mendel Dead: 'The Simpsons'

    J. Michael Mendel, 'The Simpsons' and 'Rick and Morty' Producer, Dies at 54

    Animation producer J. Michael Mendel, best known for his work on “The Simpsons” and “Rick and Morty,” has died. The four-time Emmy award-winner was 54. A spokesperson for Adult Swim, the network where “Rick and Morty” airs, confirmed the death in a statement, saying, “All of us at Adult Swim are devastated by the untimely [...]

  • Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell organize

    Emmys: Basic Cable Networks Hold Their Own, With Nat Geo Leading the Way

    The 2019 Emmys were a harsh, recurring reminder for broadcast networks that their awards lunch is being eaten by premium cablers and streaming services featuring buzzy prestige shows. But basic cablers, despite collectively logging a year-over-year decline in statuettes, managed to grab onto some key prizes with standout titles such as “Pose,” “Killing Eve” and [...]

  • A Man Walks Into the Cnn

    CNN Allegedly a Target of Arrested Solider's Terror Plans

    CNN was allegedly discussed as a potential target by a U.S. Army solider who was arrested this weekend after making known his plans for terror attacks, according to court documents released Monday and subsequent press reports. According to documents filed in Kansas federal court, Jarrett William Smith, 24, was charged with distribution of information related [...]

  • Lorne Michaels - Outstanding Variety Sketch

    Despite Dearth of Awards, Broadcasters Benefit From Televising Emmys

    The Emmys are not showing much love to the Big 4 broadcast networks these days — but don’t expect the awards show to move to a streaming service any time soon. Once again, this year’s awards were dominated by cable, premium cable, and streaming platforms. HBO took home the most Emmys with 34 total, while [...]

  • STUMPTOWN - "Forget it Dex, It's

    TV News Roundup: 'Stumptown' Adds Jay Duplass, Zosia Mamet, Zulay Henao 

    In today’s TV news roundup, “Stumptown” books three guest stars and BET announced new premiere dates for two new Tyler Perry projects. DATES BET Networks and Tyler Perry Studios have pushed back the premiere of their original dramas “The Oval” and “Sistas” to Oct. 23. “The Oval,” which has the 9 p.m. time slot, follows [...]

  • '9-1-1: Lone Star' Rounds Out Main

    '9-1-1: Lone Star' Rounds Out Main Cast With Four Series Regulars

    Fox’s upcoming drama “9-1-1: Lone Star” has filled out the remainder of its series regular roles. Natacha Karam, Brian Michael Smith, Rafael Silva and Julian Works have all joined the series alongside previously announced cast members Rob Lowe, Liv Tyler, Jim Parrack, Sierra McClain and Ronen Rubinstein. Karam will play Marjan Marwani, described as an [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content