Channel 5 is calling time on Yorkshire after accepting that it is possible to have too much of God’s Own County on one television channel.
The region has provided the backdrop to some of the broadcaster’s biggest hits in recent years, with programmes such as Our Yorkshire Farm, The Yorkshire Steam Railway, The Yorkshire Vet and a remake of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small delivering record audiences.
Nevertheless, Channel 5’s commissioning editor Daniel Pearl told the Edinburgh TV festival he did not want to make “another programme about Yorkshire, another programme about a large family in Yorkshire,” and said he was looking for different stories to tell.
He instead highlighted a forthcoming series featuring Jay Blades, the presenter of the BBC’s The Repair Shop, recalling what it was like to grow up in 1970s Hackney.
The change in focus shows how Channel 5 has changed since it launched in 1997. Its reputation as a downmarket outlet was cemented when the former director of programmes Dawn Airey said its core offer to audiences consisted of “films, fucking and football”.
More than two decades later, Channel 5’s offering would be better described as “crime, countryside and caravanning,” as it has commissioned more documentaries and dramas that appeal to the interests of middle England.
The strategy has paid off, with ratings soaring during lockdown. It has done particularly well among older audiences outside London, who still consume vast amounts of linear television and are less likely to spend their time watching streaming services such as Netflix – although this has led to criticism that the channel’s output does not reflect modern Britain.
“We continue to defy all those people who say linear television is dead,” said the Channel 5 controller, Ben Frow. He is planning further investment in original dramas and documentaries, in addition to having poached the Jeremy Vine-fronted gameshow Eggheads from the BBC.
The station hopes to receive approval from the media regulator Ofcom to combine its news output into a single hour-long programme at 5pm. “One hour gives you more ability to drill down. I think we can make our news bigger, bolder and give it much more of a presence,” Frow said.
He described how his creative process often involves thinking of topics and then combining them with celebrities, sometimes with Alan Partridge-esque results.
A forthcoming series featuring Pam Ayres travelling around the Cotswolds came about because “it’s the only part of Britain no one’s done, then Pam Ayres popped into my head”.
Another hit series features Paul Merton and Suki Webster driving a campervan around England. “Motorhoming is very much part of our audience, then someone said Paul Merton likes motorhoming,” Frow said. “I thought he would look down his nose at Channel 5.”
But he said one commission along these lines had been a disaster. “Penguin A&E with Lorraine Kelly. It’s got penguins, it’s got A&E, it’s got Lorraine Kelly. Total flop.”