No news is good news 

1 July 2002

The life of the ITN News Channel has been a brief and unremarkable one. With a simple ‘just news’ concept, the channel was launched on 1 August 2000 as the UK’s third rolling news service. Since then, the joint venture between ITN and ntl: has been pretty uninspiring, with ratings low and losses high.

Given the output of the station, its inability to see off the strong competition from the established Sky News and BBC News 24 isn’t particularly surprising. The whole station just looks low budget, from the small and plain set, to the fact that reports are usually recycled from news bulletins made for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Even then, the reports can’t be used until they’d been broadcast on their native channels first. Despite this lag, hearing a report signed off with the ITN name is a rare occurrence. The station has few live reports, even fewer studio guests and little to make it stand out from the crowd.

In many ways its surprising the station was launched at all, appearing to be little more than a vanity project by one of its co-owners. The station hasn’t particularly been helped by its shareholders – ntl: has been in serious financial trouble and ITN suffered when the ITV contract renegotiations resulted in budgets being slashed. Even if the troubled channel wanted to spend more money, it’s unlikely the cash is going to be made available.

The lack of any decent availability on digital terrestrial didn’t help matters either. With only one other news channel on the platform (BBC News 24) to compete with, the fledgling channel had much more of a chance of picking up an audience. However this wasn’t to be and the channel was limited to broadcasting little more than a breakfast show, due to space constraints on the platform. A brief extension in hours to 6pm ended abruptly in June 2002, despite the fact that by now space was now available for the station to go 24 hours if it had wanted.

Instead ITN resorted to getting extra coverage by being relayed by a few of the small, low powered RSL stations like Manchester’s Channel M. The cheap news channel ended up providing cheap padding on other cheap stations. Changes at Channel 5 did see the station briefly replace Channel 5’s early morning news programme in 2001 but the foray into national analogue television was shortlived and six months after the new service launched, Channel 5 switched to using Sky News’s Sunrise programme instead.

The ITN News Channel plodded on, neither gaining viewers nor making money, with a pretty precarious grasp to the edge of the TV cliff. The new deal with ITV, brokered in autumn 2001 saw the bill for ITV’s provision fall from £45m to £36million, and the cliff face look even more unstable as cutbacks hit the rest of the ITN operation. Part of the resulting costcutting saw the ITV 5:30am news programme become little more than a repackaged version of News at Ten, with minor news updates made by the overnight ITN News Channel team. With that, the rumour mill started turning, with the suggestion that the channel was about to be relaunched under the ITV name.

In June 2002, after cutting their losses with ITV Digital, Carlton and Granada swooped, agreeing to buy out ITN’s 65% stake in the ailing channel. The move opened up the possibility of the channel to the space formerly occupied by the ITV Sport Channel, allowing the News Channel to broadcast 24 hours a day on digital terrestrial, as well as getting promoted on ITV1 and ITV2. Spokespeople for the new owners were bullish, proudly proclaiming they could turn the station round and telling the world that this showed ITV’s commitment to news – an interesting statement seeing as they’d help cut ITN’s budgets so badly that the news organisation had had to lay off staff and cut back its number of foreign bureaux.

Quite why Carlton and Granada decided to make the move in the first place isn’t particularly clear either. The duo’s track record on running channels outside their core ITV1 business isn’t especially great. In the late 1990s the pair each set up a number of pay-TV channels, most of which failed abysmally and are now gone.

The pair then turned to trying to emulate Sky, putting their money behind ONdigital, the doomed pay-TV operator that became ITV Digital. Copying the satellite operator, they launched ITV Sport and interactive services via their web-on-TV service, ITV Active. Few can even remember that experiment.

So just as the ITV Digital dust has almost stopped blowing, the pair are at it again, this time emulating the BBC by wanting to launch their own 24/7 news channel.

Given their appalling track record at running television channels and the dodgy state that the ITN News Channel is in anyway, the combination doesn’t look spectacularly good. How long a rebranded ITV News Channel will last is any one’s guess. Rolling news rarely makes money – in ten years on air, Sky News has lost millions. This, coupled with two new shareholders who have been pretty ruthless with failing enterprises in the past, doesn’t bode well.

Only one organisation seems to come out of the move well – former owner ITN, which has got rid of a loss making subsidiary, but still gets to provide its programming, although how long the channel will even stay on air is another matter. What started off as a vanity station for one organisation is set to become a vanity station for another set of owners. This is unlikely to help.

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