Channel Five has eye on 'Big Brother'

Deal for show could transform recently sold U.K. network

LONDON -- It would be a marriage made in television heaven. But before Richard Desmond's Channel Five and Endemol's "Big Brother" can announce their happy nuptials, there is the small matter of a high-stakes negotiation to play out between two of the U.K.'s toughest media power brokers.

After buying Channel Five last month for £103 million ($162.4 million), the aggressively expansionist publishing mogul Desmond has made no secret of his desire to secure shows like "Brother" and the far less available "X Factor" to rev up Five. The money-losing channel has seen its audience share slide to 6.1% during the past year.

"Brother's" run on Channel 4 will end next month after 11 seasons as that channel returns to its public-service roots.

Without a doubt, a deal to sign up the Endemol-produced show would be transformative for both sides. Although Channel 5 has a slew of high profile drama and factual shows, including "CSI," "The Mentalist" and "The Gadget Show," it has yet to secure a brand-defining reality show.

"I think a lot of shows can move channels and get lost, but 'Big Brother' is almost unique in having a fan base who love the show and the drama and, as long as the main elements stay the same, I think they would absolutely follow the show," said Boyd Hilton, TV editor of reality bible Heat Magazine.

Hilton noted that the show has a following of 3 million-4 million fans. Ratings, however, have waned since 2002.

Endemol U.K.'s latest contract with Channel 4 netted the production company about £60 million a year when "Brother" was at the heights of its powers. A deal with Channel Five could come with a price tag in the neighborhood of £30 million, though it would save Endemol the trouble of mothballing the set and crew in which it has invested during recent years.

"There are probably other places that Endemol could take 'Big Brother' and other people who would be interested in picking up the show, but the fact is that Channel Five has the kind of schedule space and digital-channel real estate that can make all the difference to supporting the show," one senior TV executive said.

In the end, talks will come down to price. After buying Channel Five, Desmond outlined a generous content budget of about £300 million a year over the next five years, almost doubling what the network now spends at a time when other terrestrial broadcasters are scaling back.

Although some of that investment might come in the form of cross promotions in his newspaper and celebrity magazines, much of it will be cash to be spend on new programs. While famously parsimonious when it comes to operational costs, Desmond always has known what investments count, spending an unheard of £1 million in 1999 to secure rights to the wedding of David and Victoria Beckham for his OK! magazine.
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