MEDIA FORUM: ITV looks forward to peaktime after News at Ten - Last week, the celebrations. This week, as the dust begins to settle, the implications can be assessed. What will the demise of the News at Ten mean for the ad industry? With ITV’s riv

Sentimentality is fine as long as it doesn’t start to inflict any serious pain - and sentimentality about News at Ten has been more damaging to ITV than most people would care to admit. Attempting to build world-class media businesses while having to ask permission every time you so much as want to tie your shoelaces must be soul destroying.

Sentimentality is fine as long as it doesn’t start to inflict any

serious pain - and sentimentality about News at Ten has been more

damaging to ITV than most people would care to admit. Attempting to

build world-class media businesses while having to ask permission every

time you so much as want to tie your shoelaces must be soul

destroying.



But following last week’s decision, we face a brave new world. ITV can

leave the 1967 schedule (when News at Ten was originally launched)

cornerstone behind and move boldly into 1998 and beyond. The final act

of the tired old melodrama was nicely encapsulated last Thursday evening

on BBC2’s jaded old Newsnight. Paxman was trying hard to land one on a

clearly uncomfortable ITV director of programmes, David Liddiment,

hectoring him with accusations of network greed, while the BBC

television boss, Alan Yentob, looked on, sanctimonious yet so

humble.



Star of the show was the Independent Television Commission’s director of

programming, Sarah Thane, who pointed out that, while News at Ten might

well be an institution, it was an institution more cherished than

watched.



We’ve always known what the great British viewing public think of News

at Ten. That’s the whole point about this long-running debate. ITV is in

business to deliver (within reason) what the mass market wants and the

ITC didn’t need to conduct endless vox pops to discover that we’re not

obsessed by television news. It’s always been down in black and white in

the BARB audience figures. We have too much news. If the ITC really

wanted to encourage diversity, it would ban ITV from carrying any news

whatsoever.



But the ITC’s bravery this time shouldn’t be discounted. They were

cowards last time around when John ’warm beer and village cricket’ Major

demurred.



This time, the ITC had Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the culture,

media and sport parliamentary select committee, to contend with. And

they did well to ignore him.



There are some ITC caveats, of course, but ITV now has what it always

wanted: a clear two-hour, post-watershed peaktime stretch between 9pm

and 11pm. It can’t just schedule feature films, nor would (or should) it

want to. The dummy schedule contains current affairs and quality drama

too - and the ITC has now made it clear that ITV must include a news

bulletin in the nearest break to ten o’clock.



The ITV chief executive, Richard Eyre, obviously greeted the ITC

decision as a victory - and it was absolutely vital if he was to have

any chance of meeting his promises to take ITV’s peaktime share of

viewing above 40 per cent once more. He commented: ’The new schedule,

which will begin next year, (will be) an exciting and far-reaching

overhaul of ITV’s primetime.



We now look forward to working with all our programme makers,

particularly ITN, to bring their energy and expertise to bear on a

schedule designed to bring greater diversity and variety to all our

viewers. The conditions the ITC have specified appear reasonable and we

are confident that we can meet them.’



The ITC decision is a recognition by regulators - at long last - that we

are in a new era. That, at least, is the view of Paul Taylor, the

managing director of BMP Optimum. He states: ’How could they have tied

ITV’s hands when there are now a third of UK homes with 24-hour news

services? People switch over or switch off when News at Ten comes on.

The world has changed.



It should obviously be welcomed as long as ITV maintains its commitment

to quality, as well as quantity, of audiences. I think all the talk

about wall-to-wall films was a red herring - that was never really an

option - but this should now reinforce ITV’s commitment to popular and

contemporary quality drama.’



But what about Eyre’s audience share targets? ’The targets are ambitious

and aggressive,’ Taylor acknowledges. ’The expectation has always been

that it would take an increased programme budget to meet them. But being

forced to carry News at Ten was effectively an audience-capping device.

Having that removed is an important step forward. And the short news

bulletin at ten should also be handled carefully. Ideally, that should

replace promotional minutage.



Adding more minutage to the whole break would create a negative audience

reaction and would be counterproductive.’



Last Thursday was also a great victory for the membership of the

Incorporated Society of British Advertisers. The trade body had lobbied

extensively for this outcome and Bob Wootton, ISBA’s director of media

and advertising affairs, admitted that there was quiet satisfaction at

the result. Now he will be ’encouraging’ ITV to go on to meet its

targets: ’They certainly have less of an excuse not to. We have arguably

the best possible team in place at ITV and we will continue to push them

to make their best efforts.



The new schedule will allow for the introduction of really competitive

programming diversity.



’But the News at Ten change will probably not happen until next year, so

in the interim it should be all hands to the pump to ensure that the

schedule performs to the optimum in the medium term.’



And as to how the network will handle the headline news bulletin, ISBA

is keen to advise. For instance, advertisers would take a dim view if

ITV scheduled a break before and after the bulletin plus a slug of promo

airtime - that could add up to an ’intermission’ of more than ten

minutes.



Jim Marshall, the chief executive of MediaVest, agrees wholeheartedly

with the view that ITV shouldn’t sit back and merely breathe a sigh of

relief. He says: ’The network’s peaktime audience problem is not

exclusively down to the scheduling of News at Ten. If they see this as

an instant solution they will fail. Channel 4 comedy and drama, for

instance, has played on ITV scheduling weaknesses caused directly by the

position of News at Ten. But it is important that ITV focuses its

competitiveness against the BBC.



It won’t help anyone if audience gains are made at the expense of other

commercial channels.’



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