Friday, May 18, 2007

So when will Five be a channel for all?

The news came today that Five has secured the rights to Neighbours after the BBC pulled out of the negotiations. (BBC News: Five wins Neighbours soap fight) As I haven't watched Neighbours for years, I don't feel particularly strongly about this. But one concern I do have is that Five is still very difficult if not impossible to receive in many parts of the country.

Sticking to analogue for the moment (but yes I will come to digital further down), Five has always been very much the runt of the litter of the channels. A decade ago I found myself retuning numerous VCRs for relatives so that the new channel wouldn't interfere. Then came the launch and the picture quality we got in Epsom was atrocious. And we are very close to the Croydon transmitter. Often I could only get a viewable picture by boosting the signal through my VCR. Then in subsequent years the transmission got much worse and was often completely unviewable.

Even this was better than the situation in Canterbury, where I spent four years. Five isn't broadcast there at all, for various transmission reasons. This is true in many parts of the country, with the result that for a lot of viewers a programme or sport event moving from one of the other four channels to Five is as good as going off the air. (Remember the row over Robot Wars?)

Now one could no doubt argue that this is an inevitable part of the free market (although show me the person who has chosen to live where they do on the basis of Five being available, or for that matter who can foresee what will move onto it!) but let's be honest - in some areas (although imported soaps isn't one of them) there isn't a free market in broadcasting rights. The various preservation orders (especially on key sporting events) and broadcasting mandates are put in place because of the belief that certain things should be accessible to all (and also because of the idea that people have already paid once through the licence fee). Channels that are not accessible to all being able to obtain these rights sits oddly with this.

(Before anyone raises a point about S4C in Wales, I'll be honest in that I'm not very familiar with it - when I've seen television in Wales it's been coming off the West Midlands transmitters - but I would totally apply this to Channel 4 as well if it was broadcasting "national treasures" that weren't available in Wales.)

One could of course sweep aside the whole set-up of preservation orders, privatise the BBC (can I claim a guaranteed standing ovation at the next Conservative Party Conference? ;-) ) and move towards total free reign in broadcasting. That is a perfectly consistent position. But the current set-up strikes me as either inconsistent or else a hangover from the days before Five began.

Now as I mentioned earlier, digital arguably sweeps aside some of these concerns. Possibly. Most of the reasoning for keeping particular broadcasting rights for the analogue channels only transfers to the difference between Freeview and pay per view channels.

But there's another potential problem. I don't know if it's just me, but Five, and the related Five US and Five Life, are the channels I have by far the most problems getting anything remotely resembling a watchable picture and audio. And this has been a consistent problem despite numerous retunes and channel updates. So once again Five is inaccessible. Why is this company so bad at broadcasting, whatever the mechanism? Do they make no effort to actually get viewers?

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