Pallid placebos that invite a stern rejection

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The Independent Culture
THE ITV companies have only themselves to blame for the furore over their proposal to shift News at Ten to 6.30pm. To judge from the sanctimonious whining emanating from ITV headquarters, it might be concluded that the timing of this pest of a programme was foisted on Channel 3 by some unworldly outside authority. The force majeure was not with them. So when Big Ben chimes 10pm, the audience for Channel 3, up to then approximately 99 per cent of total viewers, suddenly plummets to a minus zero quantity.

In fact, News at Ten is transmitted at 10pm because that is precisely what the ITV companies themselves voluntarily decided. Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1990 requires that "news programmes of high quality dealing with national and international matters" must be broadcast "in particular... at peak viewing times". Moreover, all the regional licensees must broadcast these news programmes "simultaneously".

When applications were received for ITV licences in 1991, no fewer than eight companies, including Anglia, Carlton and Scottish Television, in a carefully phrased briefing provided to me by the Independent Television Commission (ITC), "indicated an intention to broadcast their main news bulletin at 22.00 hours". And, "as the statute requires the main news bulletin to be networked, this means that all successful applicants ended up carrying News at Ten".

Far be it from me to suggest that any of these applicants had it in mind that to offer a 10pm peak-hour news bulletin might cause their application to prosper. But this offer did their applications no harmYet within two years, in 1993, some were already trying to ditch News at Ten. They failed. Now most want to rid themselves of this incubus which, they say, is so deleterious to the god of ratings.

A few weeks ago, ITV seemed to be taking a different view of its role in society. It distributed a detailed document alleging that the BBC was not fulfilling its public service remit appropriately. The implication was that the public service ethic was safe, if not safer, in ITV's hands.

Yet now Channel 3's public service flagship programme, News at Ten, will, if ITV has its way, be re-routed to the tea-time exclusion zone. Of course, as in all exclusion-zone strategies, a smokescreen is being propagated. All kinds of goodies are promised, provided that News at Ten can be obliterated. There would be one-minute bulletins to cover breaking news. There would be a News at Ten on ITV2. A current affairs programme would be transmitted once a week, and there would be a 30-minute bulletin on Channel 3 at 11pm. If the word disingenuous did not exist, it would have to be invented for these pallid placebos.

There is no doubt about the ITC's rights with regard to News on Channel 3. It has absolute power to prevent News at Ten being shifted. The last time that shift was attempted, the admirable Sir George Russell, then chairman of the ITC, squashed it flat. Will his successor, Sir Robin Biggam, do the same?

Gerald Kaufman MP is chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Parliamentary Select Committee

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