MEDIA ANALYSIS: News at Ten dispute throws future of ITC into doubt. Pressure to reinstate News at Ten has opened a debate on the future of the ITC

It’s just about possible to respect a politician who’s obsessed with the scheduling of a television programme. Just about, but only just. People with strong views about TV schedules are often sad individuals with solitary hobbies and passionate feelings for programmes like One Man and his Dog, Songs of Praise or The Antiques Roadshow.

It’s just about possible to respect a politician who’s obsessed

with the scheduling of a television programme. Just about, but only

just. People with strong views about TV schedules are often sad

individuals with solitary hobbies and passionate feelings for programmes

like One Man and his Dog, Songs of Praise or The Antiques Roadshow.



And then there’s Gerald Kaufman MP. Kaufman, who is chairman of the

department of culture, media and sport select committee, is very

irritated indeed at the demise of News at Ten. He’s been irritated for a

long time now (it came off air a year ago) and often the pressure

becomes unbearable.



Like last week, when he was, yet again, moved to insist that it be

reinstated.



Kaufman doesn’t often find himself entirely in tune with the feelings of

his colleagues. On this subject, however, he is - and it’s not difficult

to work out why. News at Ten was an undemanding, uncritical showcase for

politicians and it was one they could watch while still comfortably

enveloped in the mellow glow that comes over some public figures before

the panicky run-up to last orders.



All of which may explain one or two oddities about this saga. For

instance, the doggedness with which Kaufman has pursued this issue even

though it is now firmly the responsibility of the Independent Television

Commission.



Despite pressure from Kaufman, the ITC gave ITV the initial clearance to

move News at Ten .



So that might explain why Kaufman issued the threat he did last

week.



The MP was obviously piqued that the ITC ignored him in the first

place.



Now he is implying that if the regulator ignores him again, it’ll be

sorry.



He stated: ’It will be a very important test of the ITC as a regulatory

body whether it abides by its own criteria and requires ITV to put

right, in the view of this committee, what it has put wrong.’



Kaufman is actually the one who, on this occasion, is clearly wrong.



The schedule changes have not failed to meet performance targets laid

down by the ITC - though Leslie Hill, chairman of the ITV Network,

concedes ITV’s news audiences can certainly be improved. He comments:

’It is irrefutable that ITV’s overall news viewing figures are down, but

we have met all of the ITC’s conditions and, where viewing is concerned,

we will do better and the figures will come back. One of the problems is

that the 11 o’clock bulletin has not inherited a big enough audience,

but when we have run the right programming, it has had five million

viewers. If it always had that audience, the overall news figure would

at least be on a par with what it was before.



’I have a great respect for the job the ITC does. I think it was a bold

decision to allow us to move News at Ten and it was the right decision.

The ITC takes its responsibilities very seriously.’



ITV has expectations. So does the Incorporated Society of British

Advertisers.



Its director general, John Hooper, states: ’We have a good relationship

with the ITC, but one of our long-term gripes is that it is a regulatory

body with no duty of care towards those who indirectly pay for it - the

advertisers. So we would like to see the Government deregulate TV

advertising and split that issue away from programming and content

regulation.



We would also like to see the BBC and commercial TV brought under the

same over-arching control. We want a white paper that sets a framework

for a future in which media are converging.’



That may now be a forlorn hope - the ITC has been put in an almost

intolerable situation. This also has to be seen in the context of more

widespread speculation about the future role of the ITC and the whole

regulatory environment.



The ITC is preparing to consult with interested parties as it prepares

its own white paper submission and is well aware about the increasing

calls for there to be a single broadcasting authority. In its

deliberations on the licence fee increase, the Government has already

made clear that it believes the BBC could benefit from greater

scrutiny.



Are the political knives really out for the ITC? Would that be a bad

thing? Jim Marshall, broadcast spokesman for the Institute of

Practitioners in Advertising, says the ad industry has clear and

consistent views on this: ’We’ve made no secret of the fact we believe

in the long run there should be one regulatory body for all

broadcasters. Whether that single body is the ITC or not is debatable.

There’s more than a touch of hypocrisy in this News at Ten issue. The

ITC has been given a brief these days to operate with a lighter touch.

You can’t give it that brief then turn round and tell it to do exactly

the opposite. It is becoming more important to understand the dynamic

between public service requirements and commercial pressures. For

instance, I find it almost insulting that Kaufman can get upset about

News at Ten but has no problems about Panorama moving out of

peaktime.’



Russell Boyman, a managing partner of Mediapolis, also hopes that some

good can come from all this: ’We have to stop living in the past. ITV

has a business to run and the interests of advertisers are extremely

important. There is no public interest being served by ITV being

hamstrung in the way it is. I don’t hear any great public outcry about

the timing of news bulletins. You’d have to assume this is all about a

government wanting to have greater influence over the way its activities

are covered. It’s outrageous that an MP can express a vested interest to

this extent. But, perhaps perversely, it might be no bad thing if this

leads to a greater debate about the role of the ITC or its possible

successors. I don’t think it’s conceivable that this would lead to a

more restrictive regulatory regime than the one we have at present.’



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