FORUM: Are traditional peaktime news bulletins outdated? One-third of UK television viewers can access news coverage whenever suits them best. So now that ITV’s stalwart, News at Ten, has rung its final bong, is it time to face up to the fact that

So, farewell then to News at Ten. As has been pointed out before, only two types of people will mourn the passing of ITV’s peaktime news programme: politicians who liked to crowd into Westminster bars around 10pm in the hope of catching themselves on TV; and effusively sentimental types - often from the television business - who think they remember the times when the pioneering ITN anchorman, Robin Day, was an early-60s version of Jeremy Paxman. In other words, rude, abrasive and unprepared to offer deference in return for obvious political bullshit.

So, farewell then to News at Ten. As has been pointed out before,

only two types of people will mourn the passing of ITV’s peaktime news

programme: politicians who liked to crowd into Westminster bars around

10pm in the hope of catching themselves on TV; and effusively

sentimental types - often from the television business - who think they

remember the times when the pioneering ITN anchorman, Robin Day, was an

early-60s version of Jeremy Paxman. In other words, rude, abrasive and

unprepared to offer deference in return for obvious political

bullshit.



But that’s the point about News at Ten. With every passing year since

the Robin Day era, it became more bland and apologetic. Apologetic as in

its ’but seriously folks’ feel as it popped up amid the melodrama and

slapstick of the rest of the schedule; apologetic as in ’and finally’ as

it attempted to send us on our way with a cheery smile. News at Ten

became nothing more than a scheduling nuisance, largely because it

managed to drop well below the critical radar.



It’s a problem that all mainstream news bulletins face. It’s the problem

that motivates producers to play with gimmicks: ludicrous graphics and

virtual reality sets; blondes perched demurely on the edges of desks;

Argyll sweaters and sofas. It’s a question not so much of dumbing down

but of searching desperately for what they hope is an appropriate tone -

one that blends seamlessly with the rest of the schedule. But it’s like

asking Chat or Hello! to find a way of accommodating a cut-down version

of the Companies and Finance section of the Financial Times within their

pages. What it isn’t is an honest attempt to get more people to watch

television news - unless patronising people is now regarded as a likely

marketing device.



But at least the game of musical chairs inspired by News at Ten’s demise

appears to be over. ITV will carry bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm; the

main Channel 4 slot remains at 7pm; Channel 5 shifts from 7pm to 6pm;

and BBC1 is preparing to revamp its 6pm bulletin. Sky News, meanwhile,

is rebranding its 10pm headlines as ’News at Ten O’clock’.



So who are the winners and losers? Will more people watch more news?



Does it matter either way to advertisers? And, perhaps more pertinently,

does news have any future in the schedules of mainstream entertainment

channels?



You could argue that the mainstream news seems to survive in the world’s

most fragmented television market - the US. But as David Cuff, the

broadcast director of Initiative Media, points out, US networks restrict

news to an early evening ghetto. He states: ’It has its slot and they

all go head to head there. The difference in the UK, of course, is the

BBC and it’s unlikely - though not impossible - that the BBC will seek

to follow commercial TV in removing news from later peaktime altogether.

That’s the trend.



Look at the up and coming entertainment channels like Sky One - they

don’t have any news at all. News bulletins in peaktime is an issue for

analogue terrestrial television and that will rapidly become a rump over

the next few years. Its viewers are in the sorts of demographics where

they can catch news at times other than peak. Younger people tend to

have multichannel, and for them news just isn’t an issue because they

have almost too much choice.’



Nick Manning, the managing partner of Manning Gottlieb Media,

disagrees.



He argues that the raw numbers are still impressive - more than 15

million people a day tune in to news on terrestrial channels. He agrees

that News at Ten will be missed for the wrong reasons - ’familiarity,

consistency, cosiness’ - and that it helped hold back the evolution of

television news in this country. But you can’t read into it the

long-term decline of news as a programming strand on mainstream

television. He says: ’News isn’t casual viewing. This is habitual and

premeditated because, on a good day, news is the best television there

is. Channels that don’t carry news feel like they’re on a tape loop.

Live news roots television output in the ’here and now’ in a way that no

docusoap can, and it gives a channel its personality. It acts as an

antidote to the artificial reality of ’real life’ television.



’So the overdue move of News at Ten doesn’t signal the end of live TV

news as we know it - quite the opposite. It gives broadcasters a chance

to improve on coverage, adding depth. The easy answer used to be News at

Ten. Now we get the benefits of fresh formats and reinvigorated news

programmes to choose from. I can’t wait.’



Other’s share Cuff’s scepticism. Greg Turzynski, a managing partner at

Optimedia, points out that for every 16 people who watch News at Ten or

the Nine O’clock News, only one is between the ages of 16 and 24.

Channel 5’s news scored better against this young demographic but still

trails behind The Sun (one in six readers between 16 and 24) and the

Daily Star (one in four). He comments: ’Already in a digital home, we

have access to four dedicated news channels - Sky News, BBC News 24, CNN

and CNBC.



Many of us grew up with television that dictated an ’appointment to

view’ approach to news - all of which looked pretty much the same. It is

inevitable that the convenience and relevance we demand from all other

consumer choices will have to be reflected in news coverage. While ITV’s

main motive for changing its news line-up was the effect it will have on

everything but news, it will be fascinating to see whether the

polarisation of bulletins to either end of the evening can broaden the

news viewing profile.’



Many are confident that audience profile will improve across the entire

evening. Andy Zonfrillo, the broadcast director of Leo Burnett who is

soon to move to MindShare, states: ’If I were ITV, I wouldn’t worry

about winning the news battle. Providing that more of the under

55-year-old upmarket audience tunes in between 10pm and 11pm, then the

whole News at Ten exercise will be a success.



Advertisers will benefit from increased commercial audiences.



Although increased ITV audiences in part will come from other commercial

stations, overall I expect the total commercial audience to grow in this

band.’



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