Good news: the bongs could soon be back

`ITV was broadcasting an investigation into the pornographic industry in the News at Ten slot'
WHY ALL the fuss about News at Ten? After all, these days television viewers have news coming out of their ears. In addition to the news bulletins on the five terrestrial channels, there are available to satellite or cable subscribers three round-the-clock news services: BSkyB, CNN and, for connoisseurs of rarer species, BBC News 24. For the 10 million now surfing the Internet, services include the excellent BBC Online.

The answer is: the law of the land. The Broadcasting Act of 1990 requires Channel 3 (ITV) licensees "to programmes of high quality dealing with national and international intervals...and in particular at peak-viewing times." This requirement was consolidated in the Broadcasting Act of 1996. It was open to ITV to lobby for the statutory news requirement for Channel 3 to be removed, or at any rate relaxed. No such effort was made.

On the contrary, when applications were last made for Channel 3 licences, all successful applicants undertook to provide news bulletins in the early evening and during peak time. Eight of the 15 relevant licensees specifically indicated that they intended their peak-time bulletin to be News at Ten. Since the law says that news must be broadcast live and simultaneously by all licence-holders, that meant that all ITV licensees were committed to transmit the main news bulletin at 10pm. There was not a whimper out of them as they collected their licenses.

Indeed, why should there have been? After all, in exchange for obeying this condition, which they voluntarily undertook to do, they were given, in the famous words of Lord Thomson of Fleet, after the opening of Scottish Television, "a licence to print your own money". Sir Robin Biggam, the chairman of the Independent Television Commission, recently, a touch more delicately, referred to "the privilege of universal access to the living rooms of the UK".

Unfortunately, for the ITV bosses, the licence was not licentious enough. They wanted even more money. So they began a campaign, one of whose leaders was the now reformed and indeed saintly Greg Dyke, to get rid of News at Ten. It was simply too inconvenient having breaks in programmes (apart from lucrative commercials) at the peak-viewing time. Sir George Russell, then chairman of the ITC, saw them off.

So last year they tried again. And this time the ITC, under Sir Robin Biggam, decided to give them a chance. Let us be clear that it was no more than a chance. The ITC statement a year ago gave what its news release called "qualified approval" for the removal of News at Ten.

It laid down conditions, including a stipulation that "the ITC expects ITV's commitment to public service values to be undiminished and for the more diverse range of programmes proposed from 9 to 11pm to be delivered." It insisted on the scheduling of "high quality regional programmes". It said that they would conduct a review after 12 months and that, if ITV did not come up to scratch, there would have to be "remedial proposals".

So what we have here is not Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, behaving like a meddling busybody in writing to Sir Robin about News at Ten; nor even the cantankerous and notoriously publicity-hungry Kaufman getting in on the act. What we have is commitments entered into freely by the ITV companies, relaxation of those commitments by the ITC in exchange for the fulfilment of certain not very demanding criteria, and an impending review which ITV will have to pass.

So, rather more than halfway through the trial period, how is ITV doing? The answer has to be: not very well. The latest figures for ITV evening news show that, while the audience for tea-time news has risen by 1.4 million, the audience for late-evening news has fallen by 2.1 million. You don't have to be very good at arithmetic to work out that this is a net loss of 700,000.

Of course, one problem may be that the 11pm news does not always come on at 11pm, so that people cannot rely on it in the way that they could with News at Ten. But the greater problem is that it is simply too late. ITV claimed that they could alter Britain's bedtime habits. They have failed to do so.

They have also failed to use the slot for much else than lowest common denomination fodder, notably old James Bond films. Sir David Nicholas, who helped turn ITN - of which he was chairman from 1989 to 1991 - into the news brand leader, with the BBC panting in its wake, last week pointed out that, in the traditional News at Ten slot, ITV was broadcasting an investigation into the state of the pornographic industry. "Welcome," said Sir David, "to ITV's vision of current affairs television." And the magniloquent boast of great things from the much-boosted once-a-week current affairs programme has not been fulfilled, despite the respect in which its front-man, Sir Trevor McDonald, is held.

The ITC itself is far from satisfied. Three weeks ago, Sir Robin Biggam expressed concern about "the decline in viewing and ratings for ITV regional programmes". which, he said, "have suffered badly". The review will be far from a formality. And ITV will have to make the case all over again for the abolition of News at Ten.

It may well be that, when a new Broadcasting Bill comes along early in the next Parliament, there can be fresh consideration of what news provision on ITV ought to be in the age of digital TV.

But that is for the future. Meanwhile, the law is the law and ITV have to abide by it like all of the rest of us.