Stripped for action

As the nation’s video recorders are adjusted in preparation for the launch of Channel 5, Eddie Gibb asks its news anchor Kirsty Young what difference another terrestrial station will make to our lives.

hile squads of screwdriver opera- tives fan out across the country re-tuning video recorders for the first terrestrial TV launch in fifteen years, the talk at Channel 5’s head office is of ‘stripping’. This turns out not to be some kind of European soft porn show, but a scheduling style common on American television where programmes run in a ‘strip’ at the same time every day across the week.

Over here, the BBC’s twice-daily visit to Ramsay Street for Neighbours is an example of stripped scheduling, as is Richard and Judy’s This Morning on lTV. But Channel 5 is extending this technique into prime time, which is a significant departure from the way existing channels plan your evening’s viewing with an interlocking patchwork of programmes. On Channel 5 it may not mean the same show every night but TV formats like quizzes and comedy will appear in fixed time slots.

You’ll see fewer one-off documentaries and single dramas; Channel 5’s schedule is going to be based on long-running formats which can be repeated daily or weekly for a whole season. With a programme budget of £110 million —- something like half that of Channel 4 few, if any, shows are going to be throwing money at the screen. What cash there is will be spent on targeting a niche market that is attractive to advertisers and, Channel 5 believes, looking for an alternative to existing channels. We’re talking lifestyle and entertainment, folks, in a business where talk is cheap programming.

‘The under-40$ are far more sophisticated and they are not being served,’ says director of programmes Dawn Airey, formerly head of arts and entertainment at Channel 4. ‘There are huge demands on their leisure time of which TV is a part. They want to be entertained by things which are witty and clever.’

So far Channel 5 has said very little about the individual shows that it will launch with on 1 January 1997. However, last month it announced at the Edinburgh television festival that Scottish presenter Kirsty Young was to anchor the nightly news bulletin. ‘She will be the voice of a generation that is otherwise turning away from news on television,’ says Tim Gardam, Channel 5’s, controller of news and current affairs.

The station is quick to emphasise Young’s background as a serious news journalist with BBC

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Radio Scotland and Scotland Today, but she is best known down south as a jobbing presenter on up-beat magazine shows like Holiday 96 and The Street where she was rapidly becoming a kind of glam version of Esther Rantzcn. Career-wise. this is a move away from the lighter, rent-a-presenter work she has been doing for the BBC and 27-year-old Young will be expected to become a figurehead for the channel itself - she has been hired as much for her celeb rating as an ability to pop a Paxman- like question. Given that, it seems likely that

‘At the moment watching programmes

like Channel 4 news is a bit like doing

your homework. We want to make it a lot more watchable.’

Kirsty Young

Channel 5 news will offer an American-style mix ofentertainmcnt and information which can be expected to pursue ratings more aggressively than other national news programmes.

‘We want it to be as popular as any other programme.‘ acknowledges Young. ‘1 would not use the word “infotainment” but at the moment watching programmes like Channel 4 news is a bit like doing your homework. We want to make it a lot more watchable. Hopefully it will be done with a little bit ofcheek that sets our own agenda so people will be surprised by the kind of storie we do.’

Switched on: Kirsty Young and Jack Docherty are out to pull punters for Channel 5

Fellow Scot Jack Docherty (Absolutely, Mr Don And Mr George) has also been signed up by the channel to front a late-night chat show which has inevitably been described as an attempt to bring American host David Letterman’s style of urbane humour to the British screen.

When the schedule is announced in October. the centrepiece will be the five-nights-a-week soap being made by Neighbours producer Grundy. So far, little is known about the show. and all Airey would say is that it will be set in a UK city. A few details of other programmes have emerged. however, through a combination of leaks and a drip-feed of press releases to keep the channel in the public eye, including a nightly showbiz news magazine called Exclusive and a whole raft of daytime lifestyle shows covering the usual range of activities like gardening and cooking.

Since Channel 4 launched in 1982. the whole multi-channel future of television has been blown wide open. In theory. a niche broadcaster such as Channel 5, which is understood to be looking for only a 5 per cent share of available viewers. ought to be able to find a toehold. The difficulty is being distinctive on a tight budget. Dawn Airey has likened Channel 5 to Rupert Murdoch’s American network Fox. which successfully launched against the ‘big three’ ten years ago.

For this analogy to hold. however, Channel 5 must come up with shows like Fox’s Home Improvement, The Simpsons or The X Files which helped create a youthful identity for the channel and hooked in a decent number of viewers. That’s a big challenge in a world where £1 10 million can be described as a shoestring.