Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 130 - 139)




  130. I should like to welcome you here today. We should particularly like to welcome you, Dawn Airey, here in your new capacity. Do I take it you want to make an introductory statement?
  (Ms Airey) That is not necessary. We should like to go straight to questions.

Mr Bryant

  131. You cannot get Channel 5 in the Rhondda unless you have a Sky box, so it is almost irrelevant. I would guess that many people would identify Channel 5 as showing a lot of sex. Do you think that is a good thing? Is it an accurate perception or is it a bad thing?
  (Ms Airey) I am grateful to be given the opportunity to lay that one to rest. The fact of the matter is that Channel 5 does have a very modest amount of programmes portraying sex and sexuality which is part of the legitimate subject to explore. If you believed some of the alarmist headlines, you would think there was a lot more there than there is. In fact there are fewer programmes of that nature on Channel 5 than there are on certain other broadcasters whose evidence you have heard.

  132. Name names.
  (Ms Airey) Channel 4. The fact of the matter is that in the last five years our output has improved, the range and breadth of our output has improved absolutely no end and we have become confident in what we are good at, particularly fast turnaround documentaries, news and current affairs, good quality children's programmes and educational programmes, a lot of programming which is absolutely the backbone of public service broadcasting. The initial hype and the initial attention which was given to one very small sector of our output is totally disproportionate to the hours it fills and the importance it assumes in the schedule.

  133. How are you going to turn around that impression, because it is still very clearly out there.
  (Ms Airey) The impression has turned round. All the research we have done would indicate that over the last year the quality of our programming is far better than public perception and that indicates to me that we have a continued marketing objective to sell what we do very well. Just in the last year, the headlines we have seen, the research which has been fed back not just from the audience but also from commentators is that this is a channel which has got its act together very well. May I pass to Kevin to answer that question because he worked at Channel 4 up until six months ago and is now with Channel 5? He can give his take on the perception of 5 when he joined and the reality of what he found.
  (Mr Lygo) Like a lot of people, I suffered under a misapprehension that there was buckets of smut on Channel 5 but in fact there is not. I can honestly say that when I was at Channel 4, which everybody loves, we commissioned a lot more sex programming than I do at Channel 5 at the moment and indeed it has gone down. There was a period a few years ago when there was quite a lot of sex programming on Channel 5 but it was phased out quite quickly because they realised it did not really work. It is kept to a small part of the schedule where it does not really have an enormous impact on the viewers. It is also curious how few complaints there are about it. It comes up in meetings of august bodies such as yourselves but as far as viewers' complaints are concerned, which we take very seriously, it hardly ever registers, which is a curious thing. The main thing about sex programming is that we cannot say we are not going to do any sex programming; no broadcaster is going to do that. This week on Channel 4 was Designer Vaginas, there is Club Reps running on ITV at the moment, these are on channels where they do not get much attention. It is about the big new drive for Channel 5 now which is to make all our programmes better as we get older, more mature, programme budget increases and so on. Like any other genre television, there is good sex programming and there is bad sex programming and a way of defining it which I find quite useful when commissioning programmes is if it is a programme which has sex in its content, whether you are in any way ashamed of it, whether you would sit down happily with your wife or your partner and watch it. Channel 4 has been the past master at this. Whether it is Designer Vaginas, Eurotrash or a six-hour history of pornography, they are good programmes. A trick with sex programming, like everything else, is to make good programmes. In the early days when there was not much money about it was buying cheaper programmes which were not that good. It is like buying a bad sit-com from America instead of buying Frasier or Friends. My job will be to limit the output, but honestly there is not that much of it anyway on Channel 5, and when we do do it, to make it better.

  134. I am not by any means making a prudish comment. I am just saying that I agree entirely that there is good programming and indeed good programming about attitudes to sexuality, to sex in general, can provide a very important role in modern society. To use a Shakespearean term, television is about holding a mirror up to nature and if that is not there, then we are not holding up a mirror to the whole of the country. The other bit I am just a bit nervous about is what percentage of your programming is actually British programming.
  (Ms Airey) Over 50 per cent of the schedule is original programming; that is part and parcel of our licence with the ITC. Last year the figure was around about 55 per cent and that will continue. You will see at nine-o'clock we tend to run a movie in the main, so at peak viewing times when viewers come to us at nine they will tend to see an American offering. The majority of programmes are original programmes and that number will continue to increase because it is precisely those original domestic programmes which resonate best with the audience, therefore perform well and that relates back to the performance of the company.


  135. Following on the questions Mr Bryant has put to you, I am not too clear—maybe I ought not to be too clear—about whether Channel 5 sees itself as a general channel with a relatively small number of viewers or a niche channel with a relatively large number of viewers. If it is the latter, I am not over clear what the niche may be, because on the one hand you carry programmes which some people might categorise as soft porn. On the other hand, you carry highbrow filming of a kind one would not be surprised to see at the National Film Theatre. I should be interested if you could in a handful of sentences categorise what your strategy is. If there had been time I would have asked ITV but we spent quite a lot of time trying to find that out and we did not find out much by the end of it all.
  (Ms Airey) May I attempt my few sentences and then pass over? We were established and won the licence as a mainstream broadcaster not as a niche channel, which is why we do a complete range of programming and programming types, everything from children's social action to education to hard news and current affairs to broad based entertainment, but we do it in a way which has to be different to the other channels. If all it did was replicate what was on ITV, you are going to get a pale imitation of that because we have a fraction of any other commercial broadcaster's and indeed public service broadcaster's funds. What we try to do is to be very purposefully straightforward and direct, particularly in our factual programmes and we try to be very utilitarian as a channel, try to be complementary to what is going on elsewhere. We know at nine o'clock there is an audience for a movie. We know for example that at five thirty there is no national news service available on free-to-air terrestrial television so we provide a national news service there. We are not obliged to. It was not part of our licence but we took the view that news and current affairs was so important to our audience that we would put in an additional service. That is Channel 5.
  (Mr Lygo) That is absolutely right. We need to touch everybody's viewing habits at some stage, otherwise we are not going to be a major broadcaster, which is what we were set up to be and what we all want to be. We do this by having a plurality of shows and appealing to different people at different times of the day. The key—and it is both intellectually obvious, but also has been practically demonstrated in the first few years of the channel—is that when we copy what other broadcasters do it is not very effective. It is often under-funded because we have less money and people do not want to see a lesser version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or a BBC wildlife show. It is incumbent upon us to find new ways of doing programming, to try to counter-schedule in a way. As BBC and ITV just merge into one another, play big mainstream dramas all the time and soap operas, it actually affords us an opportunity to create counter-programming. I would say that when I first joined and I used to work in arts on the BBC and when I saw Omnibus had disappeared and there was no arts programme—this was even before Rolf on Impressionism had started—I immediately put an arts series which the channel makes in prime time and this is one of the benefits of being a public service broadcaster. I suspect if we did not have a remit to make a certain number of arts programmes these programmes would not have been made. As we do have that remit and we have made those programmes by scheduling them at seven o'clock in the middle of prime time they did rather well, they found an audience, they brought people to the channel who maybe, like some people here, thought Channel 5 was a bit grubby. No, of course it is not grubby for vast parts of the schedule. An arts series like that in prime time can be extremely effective. It is part of this thing of appealing to a wide range of people at different times.

Derek Wyatt

  136. Does digital mean anything to Channel 5?
  (Ms Airey) It means an awful lot insofar as a sizeable amount of the population watch our services on digital. It is a fact of life: the digital universe, multi-channel universe is there. We are the only terrestrial broadcaster to have launched in a truly multi-channel environment and therefore we are very, very cognizant of our performance in multi-channel homes, in digital homes. We do transmit digitally. We do have half of Multiplex 3 which is run by SDN and we sub-licence that capacity back currently to SDN. We are part and parcel of the digital coalition and are heavily involved with the BBC and ITV on how to market this new box and the services which will be on it. Digital television is as much our future as every other terrestrial broadcaster's future.
  (Mr Murray) Channel 5 is only four and a half years' old and therefore the majority of our resources have to go into the main schedule, in terms of improving the quality of our programmes, so that more and more people come into the main channel. However, it is going to be a digital future which Channel 5 is going to have to live in. Therefore we want some part of shaping what that future will be.

  137. If I understand it rightly, the Channel 4 digital channels have been financially unhelpful to their bottom line and it is likely that under the new director they may or may not continue. Have you been right not to have digital Channel 5.1 or digital 5.5 or something?
  (Ms Airey) We have to establish the core offering first. We are not five years' old yet; we are five years in March. Kevin can talk in more detail about the E4 experience because he launched it when he was at Channel 4. E4 demonstrates that it is really tough, it is really difficult. What is clear is that as the audience fragments you need to look at other ways of maintaining your overall audience share. At the moment, as the newest kid on the block, we are the only broadcaster last year outside of BBC2 who has aggressively grown its audience share. I predict that this year we shall be the only channel to grow our audience share. There is still a huge amount we can do with the core service. To be frank, I should like every spare penny of my shareholders' money to be spent on improving that core service because that currently is where the biggest game is to be had. That is not to say that sometime in the future we will not want to use that digital-gifted capacity to extend the Channel 5 brand to other services. At the moment, that is simply not practical.

  138. If you are not going to use your band width for digital, should you not hand it back rather than lease it?
  (Ms Airey) No. We do use it, because we transmit our current signal digitally and we need band width for that. We sub-license it back to SDN who themselves pass it on, market it to other services. There will be a time when we will want to use it, whether it is for interactive services on current channels or for new channels. That is not going to happen in the near future because, as I said previously, we are building core service.

  139. What analysis have you done if BBC were allowed to have advertising on either BBC1 or 2 or 3 or 4?
  (Ms Airey) It would be absolutely financially disastrous for Channel 5. Channel 5 currently has in the last six months a 6.1 per cent audience share. It has over 10 per cent of commercial impacts. We do not take anywhere near 10 per cent of revenue. If BBC1 took advertising, have no doubt there would be plenty of advertisers who would want to advertise on BBC1 because of the size and the quality of its audience, in preference to ITV, in preference to Channel 4, in preference to Channel 5. It would upset the ecology of broadcasting absolutely no end and would probably result in certain channels becoming even more marginalised than they are already in terms of their revenues.
  (Mr Lygo) It would be a luxury to have a spin-off channel. When I launched E4, the thought that went into that was about extending the core values and the brand of Channel 4, which had been so successful in entertainment, into a pure entertainment channel. With all that money, with all that goodwill, incredible marketing spend, still we struggled to reach one per cent which is pretty good going, but it is tiny and it is a luxury. I cannot remember the figures now: £40 million or something. Channel 5 just is not in the position to do that yet. One day I hope that we shall be able to.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 6 March 2002