I am mystified by the longstanding row over whether ITV should
reinstate News at Ten or not. If you look at the huge wealth of news
offerings from terrestrial to multichannel TV, you could hardly say that
we are suffering from a dearth of news. And we are soon to see the
provision of yet another 24-hour news channel - this time in the digital
TV environment with ITN’s joint venture with the cable operator NTL.
But, more importantly, why should the Government and the Independent
Television Commission dictate where ITV schedules its news when the
channel is battling against a myriad of alternative entertainment
sources? And when such specific controls are forced on a commercial TV
channel, it throws up all sorts of questions about what moral right
these bodies have over controlling when and what the viewer should see,
particularly when the programme in question is the news.
Of course, it was no great surprise when the ITC told ITV that it was
unhappy with its plans to bolster News at Ten with pounds 20 million
investment in new programming during the peaktime slot before the news
at 11pm. After all, the TV watchdog has no easy options - whatever
decision it makes will cause consternation. On the one hand, you have a
Government which is beginning to gear up for an election and is all too
aware of the importance of the ten o’clock slot as a valuable manifesto
tool. On the other, you have a TV network which is trying to manage
natural audience decline.
If you add the fact that the Government is looking at the possibility of
abolishing the ITC and creating a single over-arching regulator across
the media and telecoms sectors, you can see why the ITC is even more
uncomfortable in going against Labour’s wishes.
With less than two weeks to come up with a clincher which will sweep
away any possible remonstrations over not reinstating News at Ten or
rescheduling it to 10.30pm, I will be interested to see what miracles
ITV will work.
And if the final recommendations are rejected, it will be a real test of
the ITC’s powers to see how it decides to proceed - through revoking its
original decision to allow the move or going to the High Court, which
would dangerously throw a spotlight on the ITC’s authority.
Bickering over where ITV should slot its news seems to pale into
insignificance, though, when speculation about future consolidation
within ITV’s ownership gathers pace. For ITV’s key players - Granada,
Carlton and United News & Media - it is also probably an unwanted
distraction while they mull over the best strategy to ensure their
future dominance. It is also a dangerous irritant to a Government from
which they are keen to elicit a favourable response in terms of relaxing
TV ownership regulations.