Richard Desmond Wins One of the U.K.'s Biggest TV Gambles

 Press Association (PA)

EDINBURGH  - As gambles go, it ranked as one of the most high profile on British TV in recent years. But mogul Richard Desmond's decision to re-launch Big Brother on Channel 5 seems to have paid off in spectacular style.

The launch audience of Celebrity Big Brother last week gave the U.K.'s smallest terrestrial channel its highest ever non-sporting audience of all time – reaching a total of 8 million viewers across the 90-minute Thursday night show and beating the performance of all the other channels including the big beasts of the BBC and ITV.

A peak of 6.4 million tuned in at the 10 p.m. start to find out which celebrities were taking residence in the iconic house, and the average audience of 5.1 million earned Channel 5 a 21.9% share, its best performance in a decade.

One week in, a strong performance from the hour-long nightly show – it has averaged 2.9 million per night - has driven up Channel 5’s total audience for its top twenty programs to 32.2 million viewers, beating its usually bigger rival Channel 4, whose top twenty shows tallied 29.5 million, according to figures from the ratings agency BARB.

It’s early days of course, but that sort of shift in audience rankings could invert the delicate commercial eco-system that the UK has gotten used to over the past twenty years, if it were to continue. Channel 4 wheeled the big guns of the Sex and The City 2 and Twilight premiers to combat Big Brother - the show it had carried for over a decade. But still its share was beaten by Channel 5's re-launch of  its one-time flagship show.

"We've always known that Celebrity Big Brother could still do a job in ratings terms, but we chose to decommission it for creative reasons," explained a Channel 4 spokesman. "The show had gone as far as it could creatively and the hours freed up by cancelling it means we are able to try many new things."

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“In the last week alone we've had a season of programs on Street Art and Debbie Tucker Green's critically acclaimed Random. These aren't big raters but they add to the quality and diversity of the channel,” the spokesman added.

For Channel 5, a crucial element of the relaunch is that it grabbed 35.8% of the 16-34 audience – more than six times its slot average for that demographic. That youthful audience is nectar to brands like Dominos Pizza, Disney, Lucozade and Freederm who have flocked to the channel to exploit a slew of new cross-media opportunities being developed around the TV show.

“This is a big opportunity for Channel 5 to get the lucrative 16-34 audiences it doesn't normally attract, as well as add some volume to its overall share," says Stephen Price, media commentator and a former scheduling analyst for Britain's biggest commercial network, ITV1.

The channel’s biggest audiences have traditionally come from sport and movies, but these don’t have the “stickiness” to translate into long term viewers, he adds.

The show's celebrity line-up has tapped the fascination for reality TV programming that clearly appeals to a youth audience.

Eccentric X-Factor twins Jedward (John and Edward Grimes), bikini-wearing beauty queen Amy Childs from The Only Way Is Essex (think Jersey Shore but with extra primping), Paddy Doherty from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and reality veteran Kerry Katona are among those to have booked room in the House. Tara ReidPamela Bach Hasselhoff and politician's wife Sally Bercow have also entered the competition.

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Just as the line-up has been broadcaster-agnostic (Paddy Doherty's show airs on rival Channel 4, Childs earned fame on ITV2 and Jedward have had a long relationship with ITV) so the coverage of the momentous and minute dramas of each episode seems to have crossed sectarian newspaper lines.

Northern & Shell's rival newspapers including The Daily Mail,The Sun and The Mirror haven't even tried to ignore a show with such a significant audience, and are running the kind of extensive coverage that has always been a key element in making the format a talking point.

If it continues, Channel 5’s success could go some way to taking audience share from other channels, says Price.

“For the two big beasts ITV1 and BBC1, this doesn’t really represent a massive challenge, but it’s a reminder to ITV not to disinvest in its schedule." Of big channels, though, he says, Channel 4 “might feel some heat. “It’s a bit of a double whammy for them, losing Big Brother and then it seemingly doing well elsewhere.”

Channel 4’s digital channel E4, which has lost The Inbetweeners, Big Brother and which will also lose Friends next month, also looks a little fragile.

Of course, with only one week's data to analyze, there is still much for the format to prove. Celebrity Big Brother will run for the three weeks, followed immediately by a much longer run of Big Brother which will have the tougher job of introducing audiences to turn into a cast of unknowns.

As with previous series that have aired on Channel 4, the nightly audience had fallen away to around half the launch numbers by the middle of the week.

But Channel 5’s program head Jeff Ford says the slide is nothing to lose sleep over.

“No one expects it to stay at that level,” he says. “To pull in these audiences every night for a single show is real result for the channel and is well above our slot average.”

Only time will tell whether Channel 5 and Endemol have performed the delicate feat of transplanting a show from one network to another without the surgery killing the patient.

For now, however, Northern & Shell boss Richard Desmond must be quietly hopeful that his risk will  be followed by significant reward. After all, in the same week that Channel Five launched Celebrity Big Brother, ITV1 also unleashed its biggest Exocet ratings missile, X Factor, which drew an audience of 10.5 million viewers – its second highest ever debut.

For Channel 5, the smallest - and until the past year, largely disregarded - terrestrial network, to pull in a launch audience more than half the size of Britain’s most successful TV juggernaut would have been unheard of a year ago.  Little wonder, then, that executives are, as program boss Jeff Ford puts it, quietly “over the moon.

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