Battle for News at Ten 

19 December 2016

From Behind the screen: The broadcasting memoirs of Lord Hill, published 1974 by Sidgwick and Jackson – ISBN 0283981814

newsat10btsThe nightly half-hour news bulletin, News at Ten, was one of the biggest steps forward during my years as chairman of ITA. To achieve it required a battle with the programme companies.

Independent Television News had been set up as a separate company in 1955 to provide a news service for all companies. It had been a considerable success, due in large part to Aidan Crawley, its first editor, and to the outstanding men it brought to the screen, including Robin Day, Ian Trethowan, Christopher Chataway, Ludovic Kennedy, George Ffitch, Brian Connell and, perhaps the ablest screen figure formed and developed by ITN, Alastair Burnet.

The new Television Act had required the strengthening of ITN and the widening of its membership from the six original companies to include all the companies, large and small. But the real problem of ITN, as seen by its second editor, Geoffrey Cox, was the amount of time allocated to news. More time on the air was needed. In 1964 the only guaranteed networked time which ITN had was twenty-three minutes forty seconds divided between the two daily news bulletins. In fact, ITN had less guaranteed time for news than it had had in 1955-6, though the amount of time allotted to news in depth and to current affairs had increased greatly.

I soon became convinced that Geoffrey Cox was right and that longer time was the key to ITN’s future. But this was not a matter which I could influence directly.
The ITN had its own board which was wholly responsible for its policy and practice. The companies strongly resisted the granting of extra news time : they wanted to use any extra non-entertainment time for other programmes.

At the time, there was a late-night news-in-depth programme, Dateline, which ITN provided for Rediffusion. In the summer of 1964, the editor urged his board to press the companies either for a half-hour news or for the networking of Dateline. But his board could not agree and advised the editor just to press for longer time. This he did to the Network Planning Committee of the companies, asking for the national networking of Dateline and a weekly news programme. There was opposition.

At this point – and for the first time – this tangled problem was referred to the Programme Policy Committee under my chairmanship. It fell to me in effect to arbitrate on the issues. I ruled that:

  1. Dateline should not be nationally networked but must be taken by all companies who did not produce their own late-night news-in-depth programmes.
  2. ITN Reports, the weekly news programme, should be nationally networked at a reasonable hour within a twenty-four-hour period.
  3. The main news at 8.55 p.m. should be extended by one minute.

This, I know, was modest and inadequate progress. I would have ruled for a three-minute extension of the 8.55 p.m. news if the editor had wanted it. But he believed that one minute was enough for the moment. If he could not get the national networking of Dateline, he preferred to switch his strategy away from trying to get a third late news programme like Dateline towards the lengthening of the main daily bulletin to half an hour. But he needed the staff capable of making and presenting a half-hour programme. Alastair Burnet had just become editor of the Economist and Nigel Ryan had not yet joined ITN. At the time I was puzzled by what seemed to be Geoffrey Cox’s timidity. We were a little way forward but not much and, as I thought, not far enough.

The next step was to make ITN Reports a success. All went well in the early weeks when the news was dominated by Winston Churchill’s illness and death. Then it ran into a phase of what one critic called ‘pre-war Pathe Pictorial featurettes’ with items on beagling, the first night of a film in which the ex-Queen of Persia starred, and mountain rescue teams in training. Geoffrey Cox, sensing the danger to his whole strategy, set about the task of making ITN Reports a success. He struck lucky because the next week’s issue coincided with a dramatic ten-minute recording of the first live pictures of the first American moon probe reaching the moon. The programme began to improve.

Dateline, in the meantime, was running into difficulties. Rediffusion, the company for which the programme was made, began to develop its own late-night news-in-depth programmes and Dateline was pushed further and further back until it was frequently broadcast after midnight. The BBC then began 24 Hours, thus further cutting the ground from under Dateline.

It was becoming clear that the only real solution lay in a thirty-minute news, though Geoffrey Cox did not want to arouse the companies. Again, I thought he was excessively timid but, as he had to live with his board, I remained silent. Alastair Burnet, editor of the Economist, had no such qualms. Invited to give the ‘Keynote’ address at an ITV Consultation on News and Current Affairs in January 1966, he came out strongly in favour of the thirty-minute news. Geoffrey Cox had urged him to hold back on the grounds that such public advocacy was premature, but he was not to be deterred. The issue reopened in this way, and discussion of it was resumed in the ITN board. The arguments against it were repeated.

Anyway, in the course of 1966, ITN made a ‘dry run’ of a half-hour bulletin which was liked by ITA officials, and another which was seen and not liked by the ITN board. Later in the year Robert Fraser argued that if there was to be half-hour news, it should be placed early in the evening, as in the United States. Cox wondered for a while whether to accept the argument and get his half-hour programme at the wrong time. But the facts were against it. In America most of the news is in by 7 p.m.; in Britain the American news of the day is not in by 6 p.m. or 6.30 p.m., UK time. Much foreign film has not arrived and Parliament is still sitting.

By the autumn of 1966, the time seemed ripe (I thought over-ripe) to face up to the main issue, a half-hour news programme at 10 p.m. The ITA was calling for a new look at peak-hour schedules in 1967. It was now or never – at least not for another year. I was determined that it should be ‘now’. Fraser and Sendall made it clear to representatives of the companies that if they did not act the Authority would. They acted.

The new programme, News at Ten, which began in July 1967, was a resounding success from the outset, becoming an equal competitor for news with the BBC.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Square Eyes 23 December 2016 at 7:13 pm

The BBC introduced a half-hour nightly news programme on BBC2 in 1964 which ITV likes to ignore. It went into colour in 1967, two years ahead of News at Ten.

garry robin simpson 2 January 2017 at 4:11 pm

Yes in reality the moment B.B.C. started a half-hour News Programme in 1964. I.T.N. [On behalf of the I.T.V. Companies] had to follow. The most significant News At Ten programme in my view was the last hours of America in Vietnam on April 29th 1975. I.T.N.*s News at Ten had a 40 minute special Two commercial Breaks [so you knew it was important] with .a film report by a young Micheal Nicholson The Helicopter Report as it was later called. I seem to remember. May he Rest in Peace. I would have been 10 and a half years of age at that time. If my memories are correct.. My late father was working through the night as a signal man for British Rail. My mother let me stay up and watch News at Ten. I did not sleep well that night. Or it might have been the Fish Fingers Chips and Baked Beans! Every one at my Disabled school [Lang side] friends was talking about it the next day. No videos or On Demand services then! In those days TELEVISION MATTERED NEWS TRIED TO BE TRUTHFUL. In 1975 the U.K. VOTED TO REMAIN IN THE E.U.DISCUSS!! My father passed in 2002 [Lang Cancer] My Mother passed in March 2016. I just have these memories now. May they Rest in Peace. and all the fallen of ALL WARS! FROM Vietnam to Aleppo. As I am typing this on the 2nd day of 2017. May I wish you all. From the New Forest. A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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