News At When 

1 January 2002

Carl Ellis on the mistake of messing with the Ten

Although its historical status is over-exaggerated by lazy journalists, ITN’s News at Ten was a British television institution for over thirty years. Viewers liked it because it provided a comprehensive news programme at the end of the evening’s viewing, while politicians liked it because it was able to cover late-night parliamentary votes far better than the BBC’s 9pm bulletin.

However, that’s not to say that it’s timing didn’t have drawbacks, most notably the fact that post-watershed films or dramas would have to be interrupted for forty minutes at 10pm.

After years of viewers complaining about that a programme which started at 9pm wouldn’t finish until nearly midnight, ITV finally bit the bullet in March 1999 and News at Ten was replaced by the ITV Nightly News at 11pm. In order to comply with the Channel 3 licence requirements, ITV’s News at 5.40 was pushed back fifty minutes to become the ITV Evening News. This half-hour bulletin was now ITV’s main news of the evening, with the late night one reduced to just 20 minutes in length.

Given the rivalry between print journalists and their television counterparts, it’s not particularly surprising that some newspapers sought to make an issue of this rescheduling. As is almost de rigueur in these situations, phone polls were quickly set up and the vast majority of the public was in favour of News at Ten’s restoration. Quite how many of those who supposedly voted “yes” were regular viewers is a matter of speculation.

Also unsurprising was the fact that the “story” was taken up by 10 Downing Street. Now many of us might applaud a government taking an interest in broadcasting, but sadly this was just typical New Labour fluff. Although more important than other “issues” – such as the campaign to “free” a fictional soap opera character or which Spice Girl was best – that Number Ten had seen fit to give us its opinion on, the actual timing of ITV’s news was still none of the government’s business.

If it wanted ITV to run its news at a particular time then it had the mechanism as its disposal – simply include a clause in the next Broadcasting Bill. After all, ITV is the only privately owned terrestrial TV channel with national coverage, and that brings with it – or at least should bring with it – certain responsibilities. Instead, the government was using the press to stir up an issue that arguably didn’t exist in the first place.

With the government taking an interest, the ITC naturally sprang into action, reminding ITV of its responsibilities, especially as the rescheduling saw the audience for ITV’s news programmes fall.

Again, it would nice to applaud the ITC on taking as tough a line as the 1990 Act allowed it, but would it have made such a fuss had the press and the government not started the bandwagon rolling in the first place?

By the summer of 2000, it was apparent that the fall in ITV’s news ratings was more than just a blip and the ITC wanted the 11pm bulletin brought forward. With both sides apparently prepared to take the issue to a judicial review, the BBC then announced a masterstroke – it would move its 9pm news to 10pm. Apart from freeing up the 9-10pm hour for new peaktime programming, this would make it more difficult for ITV to “reclaim” the 10pm slot, especially since the BBC would also run a 10pm bulletin on Sundays.

A month later, the ITC and ITV finally reached agreement over the News at Ten issue and this agreement was somehow portrayed as a victory for the viewer, even though it clearly wasn’t.

Although the headlines might have claimed that News at Ten was back, it wasn’t. For a start, ITV would only have to run its news at 10pm on Monday to Thursday, with the later programme remaining on Fridays. Additionally, ITV would be allowed to move the Monday to Thursday bulletin to a later slot on 52 times a year. Coupled with ITV’s sudden inability to keep to anything like a published schedule, this was more News at When than News at Ten.

The BBC’s statement sums up the situation well: “Under this proposal, ITV’s commitment to news is clear, the 20 minute nightly news will be scheduled at 10pm – except on the two nights it’s not. This will confuse everyone, especially the viewers.”

Apart from the loss of a fixed point in the schedule, the agreement was also unsatisfactory in other ways. The 10pm news was still only twenty minutes long, so clearly the “New” News at Ten would be a shadow of its former self, while the local news was cast adrift so that it would often turn up an hour later.

This wasn’t “lighter touch” regulation on the part of the ITC because it wasn’t regulation at all. There was no attempt to start the news at the scheduled time and there was no attempt to force ITV to stop its descent into tabloid news, with an over-emphasis on showbiz and entertainment and constant plugs for other ITV programmes (usually “Tonight with Trevor McDonald”, ITV’s supposedly flagship current affairs strand, which seemed to be aimed at the intelligent Daily Star reader).

Even worse was the fact that ITV had to be effectively bribed to make these changes, with an increased ad allowance in peaktime forming part of the deal.

Once the BBC had moved its news to 10pm, forcing ITV to do the same served little point, but with the tabloids and the government pushing for the return of the “real” News at Ten, the obvious compromise of allowing ITV to run its weekday news at, say, 10.30pm was apparently less preferable to the ITC allowing ITV to make a half-hearted return to 10pm.

The current situation on Wednesdays sums up the situation well. In the old days, it was bad enough that News at Ten was pushed back to 10.15pm in order to accommodate Coronation Street after the Champions League coverage (since pre-empting the programme totally was obviously out of the question, even if this would have enabled the news to start at the “correct” time).

However, even this was better than finishing the football at 9.45 and slotting in an hour-long programme before the news finally turns up at 10.45pm (especially since the hour between the football and the news will be filled by such ratings winners as “Survivor”).

To be brutally honest, I couldn’t really care less when ITV runs its news these days. Even if I didn’t have access to multi-channel television, I can ‘t see myself watching ITV’s news anyway – its content and presentation is (or at least should be) an embarrassment for a major channel.

And it’s perhaps just as well that ITV’s news is now run under the channel’s branding not that of the production company, so that it doesn’t tar ITN’s other productions (and yes, I’m including 5 News in that group) with the same tacky brush.

But that’s not to say that the ITC shouldn’t have acted over the issue. However, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, it could have taken the high ground and highlighted ITV’s lack of commitment to proper news and insisted on an improvement in standards and a fixed timeslot in the schedule.

Instead, as Gerald Kaufman MP pointed out, viewers were left with an “unhappy end to an unhappy episode,” in which the only winners were ITV. And these days when ITV wins, viewers usually don’t.

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