France is determined to change perceptions and boost ad revenues even further.Channel 5’s decision to locate its northern sales office in Leeds in 1997 came as a bigger surprise than Robbie Fowler’s decision to leave Liverpool and move to Leeds FC.
But perhaps an even bigger surprise is the fact that Channel 5, the UK’s fifth terrestrial television channel, has just celebrated its fifth birthday, despite many so-called media experts saying it would not last one year unless it was relaunched.
Add to this the fact that Channel 5 is celebrating its birthday on the back of its best month for viewing figures ever and it signifies that even in light of the digital and satellite revolution Channel 5 is here and here to stay.
Geoff France, regional sales director at Channel 5, believes that despite past allegations and jibes, such as nicknames like Channel Filth, Five is set to continue its upward spiral in a marketplace many say is spiralling downward.
“Our fifth birthday coincides with a real purple patch for us,” says France. “February was our best ever month since launch; we got 6.7 per cent share of viewing during that month, compared to 5.5 per cent in 2001, so it has all come to fruition at a timely point. We are bucking the downward sales trend at the moment because so far this year we are up 4 per cent.”
In the last five years since opening the northern sales office, France and his team of three have chalked up £45m in sales and signed ten sponsorship deals with advertisers such as Autowindscreens, Yahoo and now the RAC. In fact, Autowindscreens’ weather sponsorship was the first deal signed and is only just coming to an end, though France says there are three advertisers poised to take up the deal.
So, what are France and the channel perhaps best remembered for allowing Keith Chegwin to show his member to the nation doing right?
“Last year when we started showing Home and Away was a real leg-up,” says France. “Sales really started to kick in and fortunately haven’t stopped since. Then we got CSI, which is one of the biggest shows in the US, and on the back of that we secured the drama series Law and Order. We always needed a big one and Home and Away was it.”
France says that Scotland has played an integral part in the channel’s development from the outset, with campaigns for big Scottish clients such as the Scottish Executive, HEBS and SUfI enabling the channel to commit heavily to live Scottish football.
France says: “In Scotland we have always sat between 25 and 30 per cent, which is higher than the UK average. There has been a higher propensity to watch Channel 5 north of the Border. I think that is simply because Scottish people tend to consume more media. They read more papers and Channel 4 did better in Scotland than nationally early on.
“Commercial TV channels seem more popular in Scotland than non-commercial channels. For instance, in January and February 2002 we were bigger than BBC2 in Scotland with our core target audience of 16-35-year-old adults, which is one of the most frequently asked for demographics.”
But while things may be purple for France and co at the moment it wasn’t quite so black and white in the early days.
He says: “Nobody really had a clue what we were all about at first. When Channel 4 started selling its own advertising itself it already had ten years of broadcasting under its belt. Its brand was well established and advertisers knew what they were getting. We did not even have a programme tape to show people. In the three months before launch we were just saying that Channel 5 is going to be a bit of this and that, so it was a real leap of faith by advertisers to come with us in the beginning.
“The first deal I did was with Foxes Biscuits. It was for about £250,000. It was about a week before we went on. That was the first time an advertiser had shown any belief in what we were saying. I remember walking out of that meeting and thinking ‘We can really make this work.’ Shortly after that we got the Seafish campaign by Marr Associates on air and they spent 50 per cent of their budget with us, which was another leg-up.”
France admits that public perception of Channel 5 has been, and may still be, a little out of focus, but he says that new programming chief Kevin Lygo is set to change that.
“The perception of Channel 5 is that it is all movies and football,” says France. “I suppose in the early days it was, but now with proven hits like Home and Away, CSI, which regularly gets 3.2 million viewers, and Law and Order, plus other exciting stuff coming through the system with Kevin on board, there is a real sea change going on.
“On 8 April we have got the new Top Gear programme starting. It has been repackaged and will be called Fifth Gear, but it will have the same team of presenters. We love opportunities like that, where we can go in pick up an ailing programme and give it a new lease of life and we are always in like a shot when a programming opportunity raises its head. Because we are still relatively small we can be very fleet of foot.”
As a sales outfit, France and his team of Chrissy Dawson, Richard Wilkinson and Lee Glenister are keen to put past perceptions behind them and look to even better times ahead as the channel continues to mature and evolve.
“There’s a feeling in the company that the channel has matured. There’s a buzz around the place. Kevin Lygo has brought in three of his team from Channel 4 and they are going to keep the successful things like movies, live football, lifestyle/leisure stuff and obviously things like Home and Away, CSI and Law and Order and add to that mix.
“The future brings a focus on entertainment. Kevin is looking to introduce some breakthrough programming like they did at Channel 4 and that will start coming through in the Autumn. There will be no more Fort Boyard, Greed or It’s A Knockout, we have moved on and evolved. People now know Channel 5 is easy entertainment.”
So, was Leeds a bad decision? It seems not.