MEDIA: SPOTLIGHT ON: NEWS AT TEN - Is the ITC using the ITV news schedule to flex its muscles? Political lobbying is behind the ongoing row over ITV’s news, Alasdair Reid writes

They just wouldn’t let it lie, would they? Many within ITV believed that the Independent Television Commission would find it eminently possible to resist the political pressure it has been under to resurrect News at Ten.

They just wouldn’t let it lie, would they? Many within ITV believed

that the Independent Television Commission would find it eminently

possible to resist the political pressure it has been under to resurrect

News at Ten.



Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the Parliamentary select committee on

media affairs, has consistently called for the 10pm bulletin, scrapped

in March 1999, to be reinstated. Recently, he even upped the ante,

threatening a review of the ITC’s future if it failed to follow his

wishes. Since the threat, however, ITC sources have been hinting that

they are more than able to stand up to the odd bit of bullying.



So last week’s announcement caught some people on the hop. Robin Biggam,

the ITC chairman, stated that the ITV schedule, with a news bulletin at

6.30pm and at 11.00pm, was not delivering a large enough combined

audience for news programming. ITV could thus be judged in default of

its public service remit.



The previous schedule, with the early evening news at 5.40pm and good

old News at Ten, delivered a combined audience of just under ten

million.



The new schedule delivers a combined news audience of just over 8.5

million.



That’s a decline of 13.9 per cent. The ITC insists that ITV has to

reverse this decline.



The heart of the matter is the performance of the 11pm bulletin. ITV

points out that the audience of its main bulletin - now deemed to be the

early evening one - compares very well with the viewing performance of

the News at Ten flagship it replaces. If ITV wants to resist the

reintroduction of News at Ten (and it does because peaktime audiences

have clearly prospered since its removal) it has to make the 11pm

bulletin more attractive.



Perhaps strangely, though, the quality of the programme itself isn’t

remotely in question. Programming is a black art and one of its central

tenets is the belief that the shape and flow of a schedule can be as

important as any inherent qualities programmes may individually

possess.



In short, ITV’s strategy is to continue to tinker with the contents of

the 10pm to 11pm slot. It will seek to build a substantial audience

momentum so that extra viewers will be passed on to the late-night news.

Can it be done? After all, it needs to pass on an extra million

viewers.



Paul Parashar, the broadcast director of New PHD, says that it can and

does work. It’s almost a statistical phenomenon - big audiences tend to

fall away at a gentle rate.



He says: ’Manchester United against Barcelona would pass on the right

sort of numbers, as would Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? The big

problem, though, is that all of ITV’s audiences have been declining

recently.



’Another consideration is that the audience profile for news tends to be

older and more upmarket while ITV has been trying to satisfy advertiser

demands for younger audiences. So, while the principle is that if you

increase peak viewing you will increase the audience for the 11pm news,

ITV should also think about what sort of audience it is trying to pass

on.’



Others in the market are less than convinced that ITV can deliver. Some

cynics believe that it’s not really expected to. Jon Horrocks, a

managing partner of Walker Media, is sceptical. He says: ’It is

unrealistic to expect ITV to deliver the sort of audiences the ITC wants

in today’s increasingly fragmented environment.



’High-rating programmes in the 10pm to 11pm slot will pass on audiences

but you can’t do that every night of the week. There’s no way that News

at Ten will be reinstated though.



’The cynical view is that the ITC is merely banging the drum for

political reasons. The reality is that it will want to hear the right

noises and see a few ideas.



’Richard Eyre (ITV’s former chief executive, who left earlier this year)

was a very effective lobbyist. You can’t help suspecting that all this

would have been avoided if an effective replacement for him had been

found.’



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