LIVE ISSUE/NEWS AT TEN: How TV’s big switch-off sparked a scheduling war. Richard Cook ponders the pros and cons of finding a new home for News at Ten

The problem, of course, isn’t News at Ten. But then it never really has been. The problem - however you dress it up - is much more serious. It’s that, for example, the latest series of Blind Date had two million fewer viewers than the one that aired in 1993; while the two main TV channels together now attract the same number of viewers on a typical, News at Ten-free Saturday evening that Jim’ll Fix It did in his 70s and 80s heyday.

The problem, of course, isn’t News at Ten. But then it never really

has been. The problem - however you dress it up - is much more serious.

It’s that, for example, the latest series of Blind Date had two million

fewer viewers than the one that aired in 1993; while the two main TV

channels together now attract the same number of viewers on a typical,

News at Ten-free Saturday evening that Jim’ll Fix It did in his 70s and

80s heyday.



In other words, it’s the same old problem. TV audiences are

declining.



They’re not dribbling away to satellite or cable or waiting for the bold

new digital revolution, they are simply switching off. And News at Ten

is caught in the middle of the battle to woo them back (Campaign, last

week).



It might be ingenuous, then, of Richard Eyre, the chief executive of

ITV, to claim that the changes he proposes to make to the channel’s

flagship news service would merely lead to higher standards of editorial

excellence, even if he isn’t necessarily wrong. ’Clearly,’ he points

out, ’we are aiming at an upmarket audience and there is no hint of

dumbing down. Journalistically, news at 11pm would allow a better level

of coverage and analysis of Parliament.’



The new proposals envisage a flagship news at 6.30pm, presented by

Trevor McDonald and broadcast far too early to capture much of the

influential business audience, at least in London and the South-east.

This would be augmented by a half-hour news programme at 11pm,

containing extra Parliamentary, regional and international reports.

There would be more bulletins for breaking news in the late evening. A

further carrot is that News at Ten could live on in some form, albeit on

ITV2 - the network’s new digital service. In addition, ITV would

introduce a news documentary strand on Sunday evenings, modelled on the

CBS show, 60 Minutes.



With News at Ten out of the way, films could be shown on some evenings

without an irritating news break half-way through, while there would be

more sport and comedy on other nights. The idea, of course, is for ITV

to extend peak ratings and give the viewers and advertisers what they

want.



But will the changes really do all this? So far we know only that they

are not popular with politicians. John Major scuppered the last

concerted effort to move the news five years ago, while Tony Blair has

already made his private reservations very public this time around. ’He

thinks,’ a spokesman said in an unusually forthright statement, ’it

would be regrettable if this led to any marginalisation of television

news or further moves downmarket in the media generally.’ The phrase

’further moves downmarket’ was surely calculated to leave an unfortunate

taste in the back of ITV throats.



It’s not as if news programmes are necessarily ratings losers, even in

America. As ITV announced its plans last week, in a moment of delicious

irony, news programmes as a category were recording ten of America’s top

27 programmes, with 60 Minutes topping the overall rankings and Dateline

NBC making the list for four of its five broadcasts. However, although

60 Minutes came ahead of a schedule packed with the likes of Seinfeld,

Frasier and Friends, news programmes traditionally do well in summer

when re-runs dominate the US entertainment schedules.



For advertisers, the issue appears to be more clear cut. ’News at Ten is

an outmoded concept that doesn’t have popular support. The brutal truth

is that most people would prefer entertainment at that time,’ Chris

Locke, the deputy managing director of MediaVest, says. ’I’d love to

take Tony Blair to see Armageddon with 40 minutes of Pathe news in the

middle - and see what he thought of that.



’It’s too easy for ITV’s rivals to schedule against it and as for

advertisers, the only reason it appears on so many schedules is

precisely that it’s easy to buy into.



If you are planning and buying a heavyweight all-adult campaign you’ll

make sure you get the breaks in Batman Returns or Supply and Demand.

News at Ten will be given to you to balance the deal. The proposed

changes offer a number of attractive-looking ABC1 buying opportunities,

not just in the later 11pm news but also with the 60 Minutes

programme.’



But hang on a minute, doesn’t anyone remember the Fiat Strada campaign

in which the music of Rossini serenaded several of Fiat’s uglier small

cars around an Italian racetrack in a ground- breaking ad that debuted

in the centre break of News at Ten? Or, more recently, Peugeot 406’s

’Search for the Hero’ that did the same to considerable acclaim?



’The centre break in News at Ten has always been the showcase spot for

advertisers,’ points out the man responsible for that Peugeot ad - Mark

Wnek, a partner at Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper. ’Not because of the numbers,

but because News at Ten was seen as the most important news service that

also offered access for the commercial world.



We used to say that only two account moves ever made it on to News at

Ten - Guinness and British Airways and I suppose it became a showcase

because of that exclusivity.



’It does seem odd that they want to give up one of the few programmes

you can count on your peers having seen, but I suspect the changes are

really just to make us fortysomethings sound old and bleat on about how

it was all much better in our day. It should be down to what the viewers

want.’



Perspective, p15.



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