The UK’s last analogue licensee is 10 years old this week, but will it be late for its own party asks Julian Clover?
Ten years ago people up and down the land received a knock on their door. A man had come round to retune the video recorder so that we could all receive the new Channel 5. With digital just around the corner government and regulator had decided that we needed one more analogue broadcaster. In many areas the only place on the spectrum was the same channel that many video recorders used for their RF frequency. The result was to avoid any interference the new broadcaster had to ensure that any video recorder likely to be affected was retuned.
I’d always thought that the decision to go ahead with Channel 5 was strange. Maybe Pearson need a consolation prize for losing the Thames ITV franchise a few years earlier. Digital was on the horizon, giving one extra channel to be upgraded when the process began in earnest, and many parts of the country couldn’t receive it. When the Spice Girls launched the channel with a reworking of a Manfred Mann hit most multichannel households just treated it as another multichannel service.
Channel 5 hit the headlines when it secured the rights to a vital World Cup qualifier, England against Poland, and hired racing presenter Brough Scott to front its coverage. Assuming that you could pick up the channel – the joke was that the forecast was for snow – it took several hours before the channel actually got round to showing the match. Everyone forgot that the former jockey was an accomplished sports journalist.
Then there were the famous three Fs, as articulated by programme director Dawn Airey, Films, Football and Fornication (this is a family publication!). But over time, and under the ownership of RTL, the rebranded Five developed children’s and perhaps most surprisingly arts strands.
The channel leased its gifted DTT capacity – half of the SDN multiplex now controlled by ITV – in order to pay for its digital conversion costs. This meant that while ITV and Channel 4 successfully launched digital services, Five was late, and the newly launched Five Life and Five US are buried in the lower reaches of the EPG. Like the mother channel they are finding life difficult in the digital world.
Maybe this is why Sky never chose to make a direct bid for Five, though it has been a mystery as to why RTL would ever want to sell, unless it meant they were able to get hold of the greater prize of ITV.
Every country has a channel that came late to the party and one that will feel the erosion of audiences to digital services the greatest. But what all of the channels have is a button they can call their own.