ITV News takes another backward step

The end of ITV's "News at Ten" marks a step back for its current affairs coverage, and for the media plurality key to British democracy.

David Elstein
27 February 2017

ITV News at Ten - fair use.

On Monday February 27th, ITV – the UK’s dominant commercial broadcaster – will once again exile its most prestigious news bulletin from its 10pm slot, first established fifty years ago.

“News At Ten” was for decades a key ingredient of the ITV schedule, attractive to discriminating viewers and advertisers alike, and although not a major audience winner, part of a line-up that out-rated its rival channel BBC1, year in and year out through the 1980s and early 1990s.

The ITV companies – in those days a federation of 15 different contractors – had a love-hate relationship with their news supplier, ITN (Independent Television News), which they jointly funded and owned, but which had considerable clout as an independent journalistic and organisational voice within the network. Individual companies, like Granada and Thames, provided current affairs series such as “World In Action” and “This Week”, but it was ITN that had the most distinctive presence.

It also had surprising friends. One of its most famous early presenters (or “newscasters” as they liked to call themselves) was Alastair Burnet, a brilliant but prickly former editor of The Economist magazine, who was close to the Thatcher government. When Mrs Thatcher re-shaped ITV – opening every franchise to competitive cash bids – she also, at his behest, forced open the ownership of ITN, limiting any one shareholder to no more than 20%, and requiring non-ITV shareholders to be allocated at least 40%.

The new relationship, launched in 1993 as a product of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, saw new friction between the news supplier and its client, now squarely a commercial enterprise looking to maximize profits. Compared to the audiences attracted by ITV’s entertainment and drama, News At Ten appeared to be a weakness in the schedule. I played a small part in this, by running a major advertising campaign – when launching Channel 5 in 1997 – pointing out that movies shown at 9pm on the new channel did not have to be interrupted by a full-length news bulletin, unlike ITV. Actually, ITV rarely showed movies at 9pm on a weekday, but having scheduled ITV myself for many years, I knew it was a point of irritation.

ITV eventually persuaded its regulator to allow it to move the late evening bulletin from 10pm to 11pm. The shift had a devastating impact on the audience for that bulletin, and was also disliked by viewers: research showed a large majority preferring the earlier time slot. The regulator duly ordered a return to the previous scheduling.

As ITV grudgingly and slowly moved to comply, the BBC’s new Director-General, Greg Dyke, ordered BBC1’s managers to re-structure their schedule, so as to move the BBC’s “Nine O’Clock News” to 10pm, and establish itself in that slot during the months it would take for ITV to respond to the regulator’s instructions. It was a brilliant decision, opening up the BBC1 schedule at 9pm for drama and documentary, and dramatically shifting the balance of viewing between the two channels. Ever since, BBC1 has enjoyed a large lead over its poorly-managed competitor.

By the time “News At Ten” returned, it found itself facing an entrenched and better-funded rival. ITV’s owners persuaded their regulator to allow a shift to 10.30 at various times, and the frustrated team at ITN found their devalued production widely derided in the press as “News At When?”. Even when the 10pm slot was restored on a regular basis, “News At Ten” almost never matched the audience for the BBC bulletin broadcast at the same time, and usually attracted less than half the number of viewers.

A shift in production style 15 months ago – bringing in Tom Bradby as the main presenter, and hiring the BBC’s Robert Peston to replace him as political editor – barely moved the dial. Now, ITV has thrown in the towel again. From Monday February 27th, the ITN team will have to make do with a 10.30pm placement, for at least 8 weeks, as ITV tries out an entertainment series hosted initially by David Walliams, called “The Nightly Show”.

I think it is safe to predict that Walliams will attract a larger audience than “News At Ten”, but he will not make much of a dent in the BBC’s “Ten O’Clock News”, which may even pick up additional news viewers unwilling to wait till 10.30 for ITV’s offering. Moreover, “The ITV News” at 10.30 will be competing with BBC 2’s “Newsnight”, and will do well even to match the current performance of “News At Ten” in terms of audience size. This feels like another ITV own goal.

One result of the calamitous decision in 1999 was to start a progressive shift of news viewers from ITV to BBC which has been cumulatively astonishing. ITV has lost nearly half of all its share of news viewing – and all of that loss has transferred directly to the BBC, which now commands 74% of all TV news viewing (the source of news most relied upon by British citizens). However good and trusted BBC news provision is thought to be, such a percentage is disturbingly high in any country that regards itself as a democracy.

This issue also impinges on two other current concerns: the spread of always-on news and the rise of fake news. In an age of rapidly expanding sources of online news and 24-hour news channels, does it really matter when – if at all – linear entertainment channels place their main news bulletin? As it happens, despite the wide take-up of video services delivered online, and of storage devices built into TV sets and set-top boxes, nearly 90% of all viewing in the UK is live or “as-live” (played back soon after being recorded). The BBC has a 24-hour news channel, but its combined audience during the day is probably less than the 4 million plus that the “Ten O’Clock News” attracts. Catching headlines is not the same as sitting down to an ordered and considered bulletin.

That’s probably why Sky News – opportunistically – is launching a 30-minute news bulletin, uninterrupted by advertisements, at 10pm every weeknight, starting – yes – on Monday February 27th. The extra weight, gravitas and prestige that attaches to such a bulletin is something Sky News recognizes. Sadly, ITV has simply lost its bottle, failing to understand how its regular dickering with its main bulletin undermines its news provider as well as its own reputation for being a serious broadcaster.

In the US, all the main networks go head-to-head at 6.30pm with their main news half-hour, and at 7am with their breakfast news shows, pouring vast resources into them. These are what distinguish them from the mass of cable and satellite stations with their relentless flow of interchangeable content. However much Donald Trump may hate and despise them, the news divisions of NBC, ABC and CBS (and to a lesser extent Fox) are the badges of honour for those networks.

Of course, Trump regularly discounts the output from these networks as “fake” – and they have bravely taken to calling him out as a liar when they feel it right to do so. The point, of course, is that there is plenty of “fake” news out there, courtesy of political axe-grinders, cheapskate providers and a multiplicity of fantasists. “Network news” may – at some risk to its reputation – follow too narrow and consensual an agenda, but it is absolutely not “fake”. No amount of whingeing and tweeting from the President is going to dislodge them from a core part of what it is to be a broadcast network.

Thatcher’s separation of ITN from ITV was a terrible error, amidst the catastrophe that called itself the 1990 Broadcasting Act. Channel 4 has never actually owned its news supplier (it is not allowed to own any of its content providers) but it has resolutely clung to its “Channel 4 News” brand as one of its most valuable assets, despite the non-commercial nature of a 7pm news hour. ITV, having lost ownership of ITN, also seemed to lose interest in news provision generally: to its, and our, great detriment. Monday February 27th 2017 is another step in the wrong direction.

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