Publisher could save the channel, but ITV and C4 will be keeping tabs.
A knight in shining armour is not the role one typically thinks of when a certain Richard Desmond comes to mind.
But as the bidding for Five nears its conclusion, it is the proprietor of the Daily Express, the Daily Star and OK! who is emerging as the potential saviour of the troubled broadcaster. Sure, both ITV and Channel 4 have kicked the tires of Five, but both are playing wait-and-see (more on this later).
Desmond’s emergence as the frontrunner for Five has prompted some startled gasps: how could Five come to this? All that promise and all those millions spent by RTL Group, only for Five to be sold to the man who owns adult content pay channels Television X and Red Hot TV.
Of course, money is not a problem for Desmond. He will tell anyone who asks that he has “loads of dough”, which reportedly means he has about £1bn laying around ready to shove into his next venture. The regulatory hurdles would be low for him, too.
The synergies he sees are primarily cross-promotional, meaning his magazines and newspapers will be full of Five ads and competitions, and the channel will most likely move even further down the celebrity-strewn path epitomised by OK!
(Soft) porn could also figure in Desmond’s Five, and the channel has some tradition in the genre - Dawn Airey’s first spell there was the era of the three Fs, and even now it’s current series, Sex: How To Do Everything, has a section on auto fellatio.
An uber-commercial, downmarket, Desmond-owned Five has some interesting potential repercussions for the rest of the commercial broadcasters. If he keeps Five’s ad sales in-house then ITV and C4 will rub their hands with glee and take big bites out of its ad share. But if Desmond has been reading the papers (I think it’s been reported in the Express), he’ll know ad sales house consolidation is the way forward, and will be calling, say, Sky’s Nick Milligan to do a deal.
Then there is the not insignificant problem of the costs of running Five. Dawn Airey has already done a lot of cost slashing, but the big cost is its contracts for the likes of Neighbours and Flash Forward, estimated to be worth between £500m and £600m.
Could Five get out of them? Maybe. They could perhaps be renegotiated. But then the question is what Desmond will do that RTL hasn’t already tried that will move the dial for Five, and push its share over the magical 10%.
In my mind, turning around Five must be done with the synergies that come from being part of another, bigger broadcaster. Broadcasting in the UK is in consolidation mode - RTL’s Gerhard Zeiler has been banging that drum for a while now, and he’s right.
Both ITV and Channel 4 are watching Five closely. Neither is keen to see Five go to the other, but neither do they want to jump in prematurely. Their thinking is that if Desmond wants to take his shot, let him.
They figure this is not the end game and next time around Five could be cheaper or potentially even no longer exist. Either outcome - though sad for Five and its employees - looks like a win-win for both ITV and Channel 4.
Kate Bulkley is a print and TV journalist and awards secretary of the Broadcasting Press Guild