Jeremy Lee on Media: 'Dirty Des' might clean up

The owner of OK!'s bid for Five demonstrates how his ambitions remain high and his pockets deep.

There's something rather tantalising about the offer that Richard Desmond, the man habitually referred to as 'Dirty Desmond' by Private Eye, due to the source of a significant proportion of his publishing wealth, has made for RTL-owned Five, the bids for which closed last week.

It's also timely. The concept of the 'three Fs' - the 'films, football and fucking' phrase famously used by Five's chairman Dawn Airey, when she was programme director, to describe the channel's output when it was still in the ascendancy in the late 90s - has recently been back in the news.

In the serialisation of his diaries in The Times, Lord Mandelson has revealed that, while Labour's deputy leader Harriet Harman wanted to base the party's recent general election campaign on the theme of 'future, family and fairness', he and two colleagues suggested their own three Fs to campaign on: 'Futile, finished and fucked'.

Desmond, the owner of OK! magazine and Express Newspapers' publisher Northern & Shell, made much of his money selling pornography magazines such as Asian Babes and The Very Best of Mega Boobs, titles he has since disposed of. Nonetheless, and despite attempts to boost his respectability, he still firmly has a foot in the 'fucking' camp.

Northern & Shell's Portland TV subsidiary continues to distribute several porn channel 'treats' on its subscription Television X platform, some under the brand name Red Hot. Television X is available on all digital platforms but, crucially, has no terrestrial footprint.

So, could Desmond turn around the fortunes of Five by unshackling it from its dependence on the few formats that do work for it (US detective series and Neighbours), perhaps by returning it to something closer to its roots?

He certainly has the chutzpah and the money. Desmond is engaged in a typically bold tabloid price war with Trinity Mirror; his Daily Star is being sold for just 10p.

In response, The Mirror has resorted to offering a free Prince CD to prop up its circulation. (Desmond has regularly used similar tactics with his Express titles - just substitute the words Princess for Prince and coverage for covermount.)

Desmond has also dropped his reported £52m-a-year salary to a more modest £50,000 (last month he boasted in an Independent interview that he had 'so much money it's ridiculous') to invest the rest in his business. In addition, he has admitted that his feet have got itchy in the 10 years since he bought Express Newspapers for £125m.

With RTL keen to offload Five, consigning its attempt to build scale in the UK market to corporate history, and with a worth of no more than £100m (and possibly far less, given that its long-standing programme contracts were signed back when things were financially rosier), the disposal could be little more than a fire sale.

What would Desmond get for his money? As well as the fifth-biggest TV channel by audience share, he would also gain the Freeview slots occupied by Fiver and Five USA. Media real estate like that doesn't come along often.

Whoever buys Five, it seems unlikely that they will maintain the independence of its ad sales function. While it will be sad to see another independent TV sales house go, along with Flextech's IDS and MTV's Viacom Brand Solutions, all of which had to work harder and smarter than bigger rivals to justify their place on an advertiser's schedule, I can't help but think that if Desmond does end up as Five's owner, the media industry will get a bit more interesting.

- Jeremy Lee is associate editor of Marketing. Read his blog at marketingmagazine.co.uk

30 SECONDS ON ... RICHARD DESMOND

- Born in 1951, Desmond struggled academically and left school at 14 to stack shelves at Woolworths. From an early age he went to meetings with his father, then managing director of screen advertising group Pearl & Dean, after he became deaf when Richard was six.

- Stories abound of Desmond behaving inappropriately, including a widely reported outburst at a meeting with Telegraph executives in 2004 complete with accusations that German company Axel Springer was run by Nazis.

- Desmond, who was worth an estimated £950m last year, acquired Express Newspapers in 2000. He sold his adult titles in 2004, and told The Times in April that Portland is a separate business and he had 'not been involved in it for 10 years'.

- Desmond stopped taking money out of his business when the 50% tax rate for higher earners came in. 'There is no fucking point because you're just giving it away,' he said. Instead, he is on the lookout for attractive business acquisitions.

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