Federation News 

1 May 2002 tbs.pm/1811

Andrew Bowden on the problems of ITV1’s local news

ITV has one distinct selling point over most of its competitors in the commercial sector. Being a nationwide federation of regional stations, the ITV companies had a distinct way to reach their viewers. Local programming could nestle side by side with networked offerings. The local company could (and did) provide local entertainment, factual and sports programming to an eager audience. And of course, there was the regional news.

Regional news is a simple concept – the stories that affect you in Glasgow may not affect in anyway your second cousin in Mid-Glamorgan. A new tramway system in Durham? Well I’m in London so who cares? Cover the right stories, choose the correct angle and you can connect with your audience. Naturally, being a regional system, ITV has always taken pride in its regional coverage. Well, until recently anyway.

Present day ITV seems embarrassed of its regional news. Slowly but surely it is being pushed away from the primetime schedules, shunted out of peaktime and into obscurity.

The rot started in 1999 when the ITV Network axed the long running News at Ten. The long running programme was stopped, with network executives claiming it got in the way of films. Its position in the schedule prevented more innovative evening scheduling was the excuse.

Two programmes replaced News at Ten. The main 30-minute bulletin was scheduled for 6:30, a late one at 11:00. Whilst this left the 10-11 timeslot for the schedulers to attempt to fill with “popular” programming, the new ITV Evening News was scheduled right at the heart of the regional timeslot of 6 to 7pm. Something had to give.

The time of the national early evening bulletin was important. ITV was not keen to go head to head with the BBC’s national news, nor did it wish to see news enter early evening by pushing rating winners like Emmerdale out of the way. Before 6pm was completely out – ITC rules stated that the main national news had to be in peaktime which the late programme, at 11pm, no longer was. 6:30 was the natural timeslot.

For many years the 6-7 slot was used for regional news and lifestyle programmes. Many of the regions ran hour-long programmes in this slot. They were now being asked to clear out their last half-hour for the “greater good” of the network.

The reactions of the regions were mixed. Those with a half-hour early evening news programme merely moved them to 6pm. Others like Granada and Tyne Tees, moved hour-long bulletins, forward half an hour to start at 5:30. Westcountry split the hour long Westcountry Live into two half-hour shows, moving one to lunchtime.

No matter what the solution, the effects were disastrous. Viewing figures for regional news dropped quickly. Programmes that had previously been beating their BBC counterparts hands down suddenly found themselves moved into a firm second place. Regional news was in trouble.

The late bulletins didn’t fare better. The old 10:30 bulletin was moved even deeper into the graveyard shift, to its new home at 11:20. Viewing figures for the national and regional late night bulletins were pretty dire, unsurprising given that most of the target viewers would be going off to bed.

Worried about the decline, in July 2000 the ITC issued a “legally binding” order to the ITV companies to move the Nightly News to an earlier time slot. After much arguing, ITV reluctantly agreed and moved the late news to 10pm in January 2001.

Whilst the new programme would bring back the News at Ten name, there was a catch. ITV managed to negotiate the ability to leave its Friday bulletin at 11pm. For the rest of the week, News at Ten had to be broadcast at 10pm, 52 weeks a year, with just a pitiful 52 exemptions. In theory ITV could run News at Ten for a whole 13 weeks, a quarter of the year, without the programme being scheduled at 10pm!

Regional news was exempted from the deal – the network was still keen to keep its 10-11pm timeslot as free of news as possible, even if it did have to have a 20 minute national bulletin in there. Wasting a precious 10 minutes of airtime on a puny regional news bulletin was not going to happen.

The regional bulletins are now rarely on before 11:20. Separated from their national counterparts, they are lost in the schedules, shown when most viewers have gone to bed, tacked on when the network has nothing better to show.

The evening bulletins fared little better. The teatime ratings crash left companies in a state of panic. In the 18 months after News At Ten was axed, Tyne Tees changed the format of North East Tonight 5 times. Granada Tonight even resorted to telling viewers how to make their own light sabre when Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released.

In the autumn of 2001 the Granada owned companies followed the Westcountry route and gave up on the 5:30 time slot. The news and lifestyle magazine format was axed, with lifestyle moving to a new lunchtime slot. The evening programme would be changed to just the news.

Whilst ratings are believed to be quite healthy for the new lunchtime programmes, it still forms part of the ghettoisation of ITV’s regional programming. If ITV were one of many commercial broadcasters providing a regional service, this would be less of a concern. However, the fate of commercial regional broadcasting currently lies pretty much in the hands of ITV and ITV alone.

As it stands no other commercial broadcaster is able or willing to provide regional news. With ITV looking even more reluctant to provide it as well, there is only one solution – strong regulation.

ITV is set up as a system of regional companies, with commitments to regional programming. A strong regulator could, if they tried, force ITV to move its regional news and lifestyle programmes out of the ghettos of daytime and late evening. A simple start would be forcing the companies to provide their late night bulletins directly after the main national news, just as it was prior to the axing of News at Ten.

How likely this is to happen is pretty debatable. When the ITC forced ITV to restore News At Ten, it fell short of enforcing a complete return, offering a large number of opt outs as a concession. As an added incentive, they allowed commercial broadcasters to have an extra ad break per hour to soften the blow. Previously an hour-long programme could only have three breaks. Now, commercial broadcasters were allowed four. When you have to offer a huge carrot to those who are supposed to obey you, something has to be wrong. What the carrot will be for restoring regional news really is anyone’s guess.

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