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
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.