Is the tune-in a switch-off

March 14, 1997

Two weeks before the launch of Channel 5 Katrina Wishart asks five academics - Do we need a fifth terrestrial television channel and what do you think of the programmes it is offering?

Channel 5's schedule looks like either a very smart stab at niche marketing or the end of British television as we know it. At the heart of its programming, with the prime slot of 9 o'clock every night of the week, is a shop-soiled Hollywood movie. The early evening show promises us "showbiz scoops" and the news coverage is unashamedly aimed at a "generation that is otherwise turning away from television news". There is no doubt that chief executive David Elstein has thought long and hard about how to make the output competitive by making it complementary. There is also no doubt that there will be nothing on this channel remotely resembling the British television that educated me in the early sixties: Z Cars, Potter plays, That Was The Week That Was and Huw Weldon arts documentaries.

A Murdochite would claim that this is the advance of democracy and the masses are no longer subsidising minority taste. It could be replied that this subsidy had the effect of producing one of the most successful audiovisual industries in the world. Elstein himself would probably counter by saying that the marketplace for TV is now global and British television was previously only a national player. The problem is that Channel 5 will spend its biggest bucks on American products and what gets spent on domestic programming will hardly nurture talent.

The first result of Channel 5's launch will be to put huge pressure to move the news out of primetime on both BBC1 and ITV. We have been constituted as a nation by television for nearly 45 years. The programming for the last national terrestrial channel is premised on the end of any national audience. What happens next?

Colin MacCabe is assistant director, British Film Institute.

Channel 5's promise that "viewers will know what to expect at what time each day" makes the viewer think of bus timetables or animals' feeding times. Isn't television only too predictable already?

Most of the programmes announced look like clones of existing fare. A daily soap? More "leisure and lifestyle issues"? No thanks. Why not something truly modern, like an alternative to Barry Norman - a programme that deals with current film and video, based on the demographic fact of steadily rising film consumption?

The lack of information, discussion and publicity is what holds back a more adventurous audiovisual culture in Britain. And I do not just mean movies in cinemas. There are at least two striking models elsewhere in the world of what alternative television can be like.

One is the Franco-German ARTE channel, which runs in the evenings only and, apart from its inevitable quota of bought-in foreign series (many of them British), offers the striking novelty of regular thematic evenings, which range from "the seven deadly sins" to "The Chinese New Year".

The other example is Australia's SBS channel, which caters in part for the country's many ethnic minorities. SBS offers an amazingly wide range of international films, and also provides world news coverage which, like the BBC's little known World Television service, offers a genuinely global perspective. Compared with the narrow focus of most television news - and Channel 5's presenter-led plans suggest an even more tabloid approach than the norm - this is genuinely informative and worth making time to see. Whether it is "mainstream" is another matter. But that aspiration seems the most depressing aspect of the Channel 5 pitch to date.

Ian Christie, visiting lecturer in film and fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.

Do children and young people need another channel? Almost certainly not. From being the poor relations of television provision, children are perhaps, with the exception of sports fans, the most well served television audience. There are five dedicated children's channels available and even on "free" TV there has been an enormous increase in the amount of programming given over to material aimed at children.

Channel 5, like ITV, has the provision of a range of programmes for children written in to its remit. Indeed, it has been suggested that the comparative strength of the United/Pearson plans for children in their proposal helped them win the franchise.

But, of course, need has very little to do with the launching of a new television service. Cynically, one could argue that adding a few cheap children's programmes can add a certain public service credibility to a channel while also attracting some lucrative confectionery advertising.

But what is the channel actually offering this audience? There is some canny scheduling with re-runs of perennial "kid-ult" favourites like Knightrider and The Dukes of Hazard. Hardly what you would call, "the most innovative broadcaster around with the best new talent in the UK", as their publicity claims.

But perhaps it is too easy to be cynical. There is also the commitment to new pre-school programming, new children's drama and a weekend magazine show that promises more than just revealing the favourite colour of lead singer Ronan from the pop group Boyzone. At least it is free at the point of delivery. There is something nostalgically encouraging about this commitment to universal availability. And maybe another channel will encourage the others to make more interesting programmes. Nick Wilson, controller of young people's programmes at Channel 5, has said that his programming will have to develop a more sophisticated style. Historically, competition has often forced innovation. I hope this will be the case with Channel 5.

Hannah Davies is a research officer at the Institute of Education. She is working on an ESRC project "Children's Media Culture".

As Richard Hoggart has remarked, television produces some remarkable programmes "but it also produces tripe". We don't need another television channel because it will not result in any real increase in programme variety. Research suggests that in countries with well-established multichannel television, as in the US or the Netherlands, viewers tend to watch only a half or a third of the total number of channels available. Nonetheless, viewers subscribe to such channels, with the result that as the advertising cake gets sliced more thinly production budgets decrease as does programme quality.

The channel will conform to the mantra of consumer sovereignty - "give the people what they want". In our popular culture this results in wall-to-wall Hollywood. When the poet Robert Frost found that the road diverged, he took the one less travelled - and that made all the difference. Regretfully, television executives travel all too predictably.

Bob Mullan is a film-maker who also teaches at the University of Wales, Swansea.

Might we already have all the broadcasting we could ever need or desire? Is there not a limit to the proportion of the national wealth which ought to be devoted to this sphere? Is it desirable to encourage more and more of our bright young people to be seduced by the supposed glamour of a media career? Might it not be better for the country and their own personal fulfilment if they were to be persuaded to seek employment in biotechnology or physics?

The answers to these questions might well lead to the conclusion that there is no pressing need to expand broadcasting, and that there are better things that we could be doing with the nation's resources. On the other hand, if it could be demonstrated that a new service had some promise of genuine innovation, a commitment to enhancing real democratic empowerment and an enthusiasm for the expansion of cultural horizons, then such reservations could be put aside. On the evidence so far, Channel 5 does not look as if it is going to do these things, or to act on Diaghilev's injunction to his dancers - "Etonnez moi!" If it does, it will be a pleasure to be proved wrong.

David Hutchison is a senior lecturer in communications and mass media, Glasgow Caledonian University.

Channel 5's schedule includes

movies every night of the week at 9pm. bought series, including Melrose Place, Hercules and Sunset Beach original drama, such as Beyond Fear, a 90-minute film based on former estate agent Stephanie. Slater's book about her kidnap by the murderer Michael Sams. Britain's first daily soap. news on the hour presenter-led. more leisure and lifestyle features. more children's programmes.

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