Cold Call: Sally Chatterton rings Martyn Lewis
Saturday 29 August 1998
"The great thing about British television is that we have all kinds of different programmes across all kinds of channels. Whatever you want you can find. Channel 5 news has undoubtedly broken new ground - it doesn't slavishly follow the normal news agenda; it goes out and finds its own stories."
"Yes, but what about the format? Isn't it a little too self-aware for its own good?"
"Well of course it's got the gimmick of standing in front of the desk but I remember the first few weeks of Channel 4 news consisted of the presenters standing up."
As Jon Snow is seated these days, I presumed it wasn't a success.
"It was considered to be a total and abject failure at the time so they went back to sitting behind desks. There's virtually nothing new that hasn't been tried in television; all you're talking about is the way in which you shuffle the pack of cards and spread it out in front of you."
I endeavoured to nudge the conversation closer to the pack of presenters currently being shuffled.
"Well, the news presenter has to strike up a rapport with the audience. Television is a very intimate medium and it helps if you're not a stranger." He pauses. "Any TV news operation abandons that kind of successful format at their peril."
"What happens when the BBC abandons that successful format in favour of a younger, prettier presenter?" He knew what I meant.
"Well, that's highly speculative. Ten days before that story broke, I had a letter from the head of contracts of BBC television offering to renew my contract for the Six o'Clock News for the next year. And hopefully then it will not be a matter of one or the other of us.
And if the worst were to happen?
"I would go to any other mainstream programme that wants me if I like what it does. But I do think you tinker too much with a format that is bringing in high ratings at your peril. There must be change but the challenge is to make the change in such a way that you don't alienate your viewers."
Which is by not bringing in new faces? "You know, one of the things I gather is that the presenters who are the most popular are the ones who have been around the longest. I know I can deliver an audience, the question is whether the BBC wants me or somebody else to deliver it for them. What I do not take to kindly, is the way in which the BBC let that unsourced story to lead to the systematic rubbishing of presenters who have been a key part of the BBC's output for 10 years."
I ask if anyone had rung to check out the story and gain an insight into Lewis's opinion of other types of news journalism. "Someone from The Sunday Times did call and I told him what I've told you, but, you know, it didn't fit in with the kind of shit-stirring story he was trying to write."
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