Examination of Witnesses (Questions 130
TUESDAY 29 JANUARY 2002
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
(Ms Airey) That is not necessary. We should like to
go straight to questions.
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
(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 clearmaybe I ought not to be too
clearabout 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 keyand it is both intellectually obvious,
but also has been practically demonstrated in the first few years
of the channelis 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 programmethis was even before Rolf on Impressionism
had startedI 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.
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.