A little look at the official BARB ratings for August reveal that a significant moment in broadcasting may not be far off.
Channel 5 is coming close to overtaking Channel 4 in terms of audience share.
In August, C4 took 4.17% of viewing while C5 took 4.07%.
There were many days when C5 was ahead of C4 and it is thought the headline gap is even narrower after “plus one” services are excluded.
If C5 ever becomes established as the “fourth channel” it will be a remarkable moment with potential consequences.
Now, first of all, there are a number of important caveats.
C4 and C5 are not in direct competition with each other. C5 may overtake C4 but it will not happen at C4’s expense.
C4 generally targets the younger demographic which is hard to reach – C5 has an increasingly clear focus on a maturer audience and is very different to the trashy C5 of old.
It’s also important to remember that both C4 and C5 have families of channels. The share of C4’s portfolio is still comfortably larger than C5’s.
C4 has made no secret of the challenges it has faced recently because of difficulties in the ad market but these challenges are not linked to C5’s success.
So why might it be a concern if C5 consistently overtakes C4?
The debate on C4 privatisation revealed an alarming indifference to the issue amongst the viewing public.
This was despite the fact that many in the TV industry were passionate in C4’s defence.
Meanwhile the apparent inability of the former culture Secretary Nadine Dorris to articulate a convincing and factually accurate rationale for privatisation seemed beyond satire and was a gift to both the government’s opponents and C4’s allies.
I would be genuinely surprised if a future government does not revisit privatisation though, even if it is off the agenda for now.
If C4 becomes the “fifth channel” it will only add to the apparent indifference some have about its special status.
At its occasional best, C4 still commissions exceptional material which other commercial channels would be unlikely to touch and which complements and competes with BBC output.
But all too often it either appears to be embarrassingly schlocky or simply mainstream – does anyone really believe the BBC, ITV or C5 wouldn’t have shown a Scotland v England football match last week and that C4 performed a public service by keeping it free-to-air?
The focus of C4 itself is increasingly on its “on demand” service which leaves you wondering whether the linear service is already being viewed by some as a legacy.
Hollyoaks will lose its nightly C4 slot next week. While it has debuted on E4 for years, there’s something symbolic about this. The main ways to watch it are clearly meant to be E4 and the internet.
Friday nights at the moment start off with Ken Bruce’s Popmaster – shown weeks ago on More4.
The worry must be that if the fourth channel sinks into a fifth place, it will be even harder for its supporters to explain why it is truly special and should matter to all of us.
It is not simply a yoof channel which is edgy for its own sake.
C4 at its best is part of a public realm and something precious would be lost without it.
The fourth channel must remain the Channel 4 Television Corporation’s flagship – its prestigious Oxford Street store seen by everyone who passes – even if many of its customers prefer to find its goods elsewhere.
PICTURED: Channel 4/Channel 5 idents. COPYRIGHT: Channel 4 Television Corporation/Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd.