Media: Here's shocking news: ITV did the right thing
Moving News at Ten to a later slot after 32 years attracted criticism from all sides. But it was a brave decision which has strengthened the channel's overall output, argues Melvyn Bragg
Tuesday 23 November 1999
Not many of the great British public. Since News at Ten left the field it had graced for 32 years, a million more viewers have stayed on or turned on to that slot to watch a wide and underrated variety of new programming. It is a younger audience, who are substantially better educated. Despite inevitable wobbles in the radical restructuring of a schedule that had been cast in concrete for almost a third of a century, ITV has, on the whole, delivered its promises.
Moreover, and this is hard to do, it has reversed what seemed an irreversible decline in ratings brought on by a quantum leap in competition and a much fiercer market-place than ever before.
ITV's popular quality programmes have brought in more advertising, which provides money for more ambitious programmes and enables ITV to continue to be, for example, the biggest single commissioner of television drama in the UK and continental Europe.
News at Ten, finely produced though it was, just did not hit the spot in the new pattern of viewing. When it came on, 20 per cent of the audience turned off; the proportion of under 35s was 37 per cent. Frankly, ITV was haemorrhaging viewers' income and its future, and the only reaction from those who could have helped was to walk by on the other side. So ITV has pulled itself together, and is tougher and better for it. The ITV schedule had become yet another good old British institution with nowhere to go.
Are the news-hungry among us suffering? With cable stations, satellites and the continuing commitment and mandating of news on all major channels, there is a cataract out there. There are many who feel that they can never escape it.
As it happens, the first few months of an admittedly apprehensive start (saying goodbye to a 32-year-old marriage would make anybody apprehensive) promise rather well. The two news bulletins - at 6.30pm and 11pm - started, as expected, lagging behind previous, more established slots, but they are rapidly catching up in numbers and are on course to equal and even overtake their old selves. I find the 11 o'clock bulletin both convenient and excellent. I was one of those who watched News at Ten for the first half of it, and when I got the picture I would often turn off, i.e. I'd watch for about 14 minutes. I watch the 11 o'clock news at least as long, and often longer. In some ways it provides an even better final paragraph to the day.
Newsnight's attempted spoiler, abruptly jumping one of its presenters into a coyly sideways-looking half-newscaster, is not only awkward, it is counter-productive. It reminds me that it's time to turn over to something with substance. It is also, I think, a waste of the high talent of Jeremy Paxman. You feel that the flow and fluency of his work are now constricted by this rather embarrassed full stop. They'll have him doing the weather next.
But there are problems. One is regional, the other political. ITV runs 28 regional news bulletins throughout every day - in itself unmatched by any other state or commercial broadcaster - and these have suffered in the ratings since the change. All regions are down year on year. But wait. Though my old company Border Television is one of those that are badly down, it still claims 39 per cent of the audience - a share that is superior to that of almost any other programme shown anywhere on British television at any time. But the ITV regionals have taken the BBC to the cleaners for years, and the BBC has seized this time to take action that has long been overdue.
First, it has pumped up and built up Neighbours and set it against the half hour of regional feature programmes. It is quite a thought that worthwhile public service regional feature programmes have been headbutted by a bought- in Australian soap opera run by the licence-funded BBC. That's show business.
Secondly, the BBC has smartened up its own early evening news act. This may have caught some of the regionals on the hop. They are already beginning to bite back but they need more hammocking and I trust that that is being worked on.
The political problem fills me with gloom. It's demeaning, especially when we have a Government that is radically committed to ending the sort of debilitating conservatism that threatens to suffocate the place. When Chris Smith writes to Sir Robin Biggam, the chairman of the Independent Television Commission, asking him to be "robust" in his legally required review of the News at Ten decision next year, you don't have to be a doctor to detect the spin. It puts Sir Robin in an unenviable jam. And it puts the Government in the position of seeming to act as a nanny in an area that is already massively regulated and rightly sensitive to its own independence from the Government.
Enter Gerald Kaufman and his select committee. Kaufman is in no doubt about anything at all as far as I can make out - certainly not about what people should be made to watch, and when they should watch it, on the channel that most of his constituents prefer. I confess that I developed a liking for Gerald recently when I learnt that he is a passionate fan of the American novelist George B Higgins who died a couple of weeks ago - too young. He is a voracious novel-reader, I discover, and a serious film buff. I just wish he were a TV buff.
It won't do to crash in on ITV as if its substance were a piece of government Plasticine. It not only gives out all the wrong messages - it is the wrong message. ITV is doing a tremendous job in a hectic market, despite the myopic strategies of regulation over the last few years, which have lashed it so tightly that not only is it unable to compete fully with America, it has also been outgunned in Europe. That is going to take some getting out of, and the notion that it is the whipping-boy of any government does it no favours.
You could make out a case for ITV being an exemplar of the new, fair, enterprising society. It is free to all at the point of access. It provides - at its best - a splendid range of quality popular programmes over the year. It fights to expand, here and abroad. It feeds on and develops new skills. It wants to move into educational and learning channels as well as shopping and movies. Yet it is barracked like no other channel or newspaper group in this country. Sorry, Chris, it's bad news.
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