Facing UK economics with Five

While running up and down the Croissette last week, realscreen stopped to talk to Five's senior programme controller Chris Shaw about the outlook for UK broadcasters and the future of Five.
October 20, 2008

For Channel Five’s senior programme controller Chris Shaw, as with most people attending MIPCOM, the economy was the main subject on his mind. In his case, the way the economy is effecting UK commercial broadcasters is what he has his eye on. ‘In my memory of 25 years of TV, the BBC has never been as dominant as it is today, so it’s actually a really big challenge for all the commercial broadcasters to compete,’ he says. The beeb’s protected income in addition to its leadership in the creative market surely makes it a tough competitor. Shaw feels that while the main terrestrials are all struggling equally with advertising losses and adjusting to the multi channel environment; creatively, Channel Five is doing the best up against the BBC. ‘From where I’m sitting, ITV is trying hard to change and improve and it’s pretty hit or miss at the moment. Channel 4 are regrouping, partly for political reasons, into a slightly different creative proposition and that’s business in progress. I don’t think they’re in a very comfortable position creatively right now but they’re in a period of transition,’ he says. ‘Five, being the smallest, can move perhaps a bit more quickly than the others so we’ve always got that advantage.’

According to Shaw, audiences are up and his channel has good, returning hits under its belt. Five acquires around half of the content it puts out and is looking for male skewing factual and fiction series to fill out the schedule. What’s working for the channel are series such as Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men, two of the most successful programs for the channel last year. The fatigue, from Shaw’s perspective, is with what he calls over-formatted, over-constructed factual programs.

‘I’m talking about shows with a guaranteed denument. To a certain extent I’m talking about what we’ve come to know as reality programming,’ he says. To Shaw, these programs feel overly constructed with not much truly left to chance. ‘I think the viewers are hoping for something a little bit more authentic, more unexpected, more realistic,’ he says. This leaves Shaw excited about the return of more observational documentary filmmaking. He’s not talking about pure fly on the wall shows, but rather programs like Warship, a six episode series filmed by Five during the four month deployment of aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious of the Royal Navy which aired in May.

The other trend Shaw is seeing in factual is the desire for humor. Even in the classical non fiction arena, he says, audiences are looking for a lighter approach. ‘That old divide between factual entertainment – that’s the light stuff, and serious documentary – no smiling allowed here; that’s finished now,’ says Shaw. Rather, he foresees factual entertainment tackling more serious subjects while classic docs are using humor as a tool for communication. And, of course, the desire for more humorous programming brings us back to the failing economy. ‘I think it’s going to be a lot more difficult to make programs about drug addicts and slum dwellings. I think people are going to say ‘life’s tough enough.”

So what’s Shaw’s advice to producers wanting to approach Five? ‘Lighten up!’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.