PERSPECTIVE: News at Ten debate highlights issues of scheduling freedom

News at Ten refuses to die. It’s made the news more often than many real news stories since its demise last spring and it’s back in the headlines again this week as MPs make another concerted push for the return of the bongs.

News at Ten refuses to die. It’s made the news more often than many

real news stories since its demise last spring and it’s back in the

headlines again this week as MPs make another concerted push for the

return of the bongs.



Which could all be a bit tedious, yet another installment in the

long-running saga of Trev and his ’and finally ...’, another churlish

skirmish in the hate-hate relationship between politicians and the news

media.



Should we care? Well this time it is more serious and the implications

for the ad industry are manifold.



The Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s Select Committee, headed by

Gerald Kaufman, is demanding the resurrection of News at Ten or else the

Independent Television Commission’s role as the arbiter of commercial

television could be called into question, which sounds rather like a

threat to me.



To recap: News at Ten is an interminable cause celebre for MPs because

it represents an opportunity to report on major political developments

before the nation hits the pillow. But at the commercial heart of the

issue lies ITV’s attempts to satisfy its advertiser and viewer customers

and its right to have the freedom to schedule accordingly.



ITV companies are bound by commitments to a range of programming,

including news output, as part of their licence terms. Beyond that, they

are in business to make money and that means attracting enough viewers

to attract enough revenue to make enough good programmes to attract

enough viewers ... and give a decent return to their shareholders. Want

good for the soul but not necessarily for the pocket programming? That’s

what the BBC is for.



True, ITV is not doing a fantastic job right now satisfying some of its

biggest commercial customers - at last week’s TV conference in Lisbon

Mars and Procter & Gamble were particularly vocal in their criticism of

ITV’s recent audience performance. But as ITV (for the moment) has the

freedom to cock-up its schedules, so advertisers have the freedom to

place their money elsewhere.



Start imposing scheduling restraints on a commercial broadcaster such as

ITV, just weeks after granting an increase in the BBC licence fee, and

you’re altering the rules of the game and that surely demands a

wholesale re-evaluation of public and private sector broadcasting -

hardly what the DCMS Select Committee is proposing.



News at Ten - like an old and rather smelly relative - was often ignored

when it was around but sadly missed now it’s not. But the truth is that

news headlines and analysis are now available all around us 24 hours a

day. Rarer, to the point of endangered species status, are quality TV

shows that draw in big audiences and get advertisers slavering. In a

commercial world, empowering ITV to deliver such programming should

really be the only issue.





Caroline Marshall is on maternity leave.



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