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

Bong! Cabinet minister writes to ITC chief raising concern about the death of News at Ten. Bong! ITV rejects criticism and accuses the Government of mere meddling. Bong! Statistics flak the air. Bong! Who cares?

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum