Can Five News's relaunch break the mould again?

After its launch in 1997, Five News became synonymous with innovation and risk-taking. The programme pioneered a faster, pacier style, and brought in a relatively unknown Scottish presenter, Kirsty Young, who broke with tradition by presenting the news standing up. Many of the innovations introduced by then editor Chris Shaw and his ITN news team were adopted elsewhere, to the point where current news editor David Kermode called time on standing presenters last year, saying it had become ‘old hat”.

Produced by Sky News since 2005 after it won the bid from ITN for an estimated £35m, Five News’s evening bulletins will be fronted by Natasha Kaplinsky, reputed to now be the highest-paid news presenter in Britain. Kaplinsky, who worked for Sky News before she joined the BBC to present Breakfast in 2002 and has been co-presenting the Six O’Clock News bulletin since 2005, has been photographed lounging around in t-shirt and jeans for the publicity shots. It’s a radical shake-up. But will Five News, the relaunch, have the same impact this time round?

The programme is certainly pulling out all the stops, hiring Kaplinsky for a reported £3m over three years, to present the 5pm and 7pm bulletins. It has nabbed the rights for Neighbours from the BBC to form part of a double whammy of Aussie soaps between the bulletins, which will run for 22 and 28 minutes respectively.

This should help Five News, which already attracts one of the youngest audiences on terrestrial television.

Currently, the 5.30pm audience averages 544,000, share of 3.8 per cent – a smaller audience than currently watches Five between 5pm and 5.30pm. The 7pm slot’s audience share is smaller, with just 279,000 viewers or 1.4 per cent audience share on average. Five is not saying what ratings the new-look show will be aiming for, but must surely be looking for a radical boost from both of its expensive BBC imports, Neighbours and Kaplinsky.

The new-look Five News will be unveiled on 18 February with new titles and graphics, and a redesigned set and website. Its editor David Kermode, 35, who also moved from the BBC last year, is keen to downplay the hullabaloo about Kaplinsky’s choice of trousers. ‘The look you see is emblematic of the style,’says Kermode, adding that he is bored of talking about jeans already. ‘What viewers are going to make their mind up on is content. Natasha’s a key part of that in her presentation and style. That said, I don’t think what she wears is of enormous significance to our viewers.”

While commentators have always made much of what Five News presenters are wearing, Kermode says the new programmes will sell themselves on their news agenda, what he calls ‘uplift’and creativity in production. The news agenda, he hopes, will be different from other broadcasters. ‘I relish our agenda being different. I’m disappointed if, on an average news day, we are doing the same as everybody else,’he says.

Five News will not be about showing off the latest studio technology or trying to do too much with a story just because it can, but deploying Five’s news team on as wide a range of stories as possible, says Kermode, adding that it is easy to just throw massive resources at a story at the expense of the rest of the news. Five News, he insists, will be about a wider menu of stories, unless the story is ‘absolutely enormous”. ‘I’m not into industry willy-waving,’he says.

Five News will have a domestic bias with some highly concentrated foreign news, plus what Kermode calls ‘ultra local news”. It will include at least one news item created by a viewer in its Your News slot. Kermode says he insists that this user-generated content is not used unless the Five team edit and make the necessary calls to get a response to a story or firm it up.

At its inception, Your News offered viewers £100 for their videos, an initiative that has since been dropped. Kermode says that they found viewers weren’t interested in the cash and were making campaigning films that they just wanted to get on air. Presumably too, offering cash for stories led to accusations that the programme was tempting its viewers into taking risks for the sake of a story.

The initiative, which is up for a Royal Television Society prize for innovation, is about genuinely putting the viewer at the heart of the programme, says Kermode. ‘It’s beyond focus groups, it’s not about expensive research. We just say to our viewers, ‘Go out and make us a film.’ It’s not opinion, because opinion is everywhere, is done. It’s about people focusing on the news stories that matter to them.’The second prong of the news strategy, ‘uplift”, will be achieved by introducing more positive, uplifting stories to the menu. Kermode explains that he wants to make news less of ‘an obligation watch”. He thinks that news programmes tend to be quite depressing and could do with some positive stories. So a cancer story could be about survivability rates; a youth crime story could be about community groups successfully tackling the problem, or conversely about young people doing good in the community.

Kermode is quick to tackle any accusation of dumbing down. He says that Five News wouldn’t have been nominated for a RTS award against the BBC and ITV 10pm offerings if it wasn’t offering a serious news agenda. ‘I get very annoyed when people confuse populism with dumbing down. ‘Populist’ doesn’t mean ‘dumb’. It’s lazy and shallow to suggest this is the case.”

‘Look at a serious newspaper,’he continues. ‘Across the pages, you will find a rich mix of stories all juxtaposed with each other. News­papers don’t start with a depressing story and have an ‘And finally’ on the end of them. They wouldn’t sell newspapers on that. We just need to be sophisticated about how we do it.”

The third prong in the relaunch is creativity, where Kermode says he has already made his voice heard, with the announcement last summer that the so-called ‘noddy’and other artificial television techniques would be banned from Five News. He took some flak from within the industry, accused by BBC head of newsroom Peter Horrocks of an ‘over-the-top’reaction to the question of trust in television.

The relaunch is a more substantial test for Kermode at Five. A self-confessed ‘teenage anorak”, he spent his early career in regional radio before joining Sky News as a producer in 1994. He moved to BBC for the launch of BBC News 24 as producer, and was promoted to editor. He then edited BBC’s weekend network bulletins for a period and became editor of BBC Breakfast in October 2004. In that period, the programme overtook GMTV in the breakfast news ratings. After 10 years at the BBC, he jumped ship to Five in July last year. ‘I didn’t want to become a BBC lifer,’he says.

Kermode would appear to be a perfect fit for Five, with experience from the magazine-style breakfast slot and of course, a professional link to Kaplinsky from their time on BBC Breakfast news, that presumably helped convince her to make the move. Kermode says that next to Sir Trevor McDonald, she’s the most recognisable face of news in the UK. Five are banking on her being the most enticing to its audience, too.

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