The News: Forget choice. Auntie still knows best what we need to know

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The Independent Culture
Fifteen years ago the champions of a multi-channel television environment, who were also, necessarily, bitter critics of the BBC, made much of the great god "Choice". Habit is so strong that most people probably don't realise, 15 years on, just how much choice we now have, and how little most of us actually care to use it. On my cable provider, for example, I can choose French, German or Italian news bulletins, as well as several BBC channels, ITN, Sky, CNN and WNBC.

Years of pounding propaganda to the contrary, remarkably few people watch Sky News, although it is arguably one of the most professional news providers in Britain. It reaches less than 1 per cent of the news market. And its tiny audience is overweight in elderly males.

The news programme that is rated by professionals as the best, Channel 4 News, also has a small audience. The outstanding fact about the news market is that it is conservative; while the number of people viewing news has shrunk, the BBC and ITV retain a firm hold on those that are left.

In the past 10 years, there has been an 800 per cent increase in the supply of television news in Britain, according to research conducted by Sarah Hicks, who is on leave from the BBC. At the same time, there has been a 20 per cent drop in viewing of news.

In this intensely competitive environment, the BBC and the various outlets of ITN (on terrestrial Channels 3 and 4) have a dominant position. The BBC still gets almost 6 million viewers for its Six o'Clock News, and News at Ten slightly more. The Nine o'Clock is watched at least once a week by 17 million people. And in the past nine years the BBC has launched several new news outlets: BBC World, an international satellite service financed by sales to stations abroad; News 24, a digital, 24- hour news channel; Radio Five Live, a radio channel focusing on news and sport; and BBC Online, the second most popular internet site in Britain. BBC News and Current Affairs is one of the biggest news organisations in the world, putting out a staggering 46,000 hours of news every year.

So much by way of countering current stereotypes of the BBC as a shrinking or marginal news organisation, outstripped by commercial rivals. The reality is a fiercely competitive news market, in which more and more providers are chasing a slowly declining number of consumers.

So how do rival news programmes compete? To the layman they may seem similar. To the professional, quite small differences of story selection, treatment and technique are seen as powerful competitive weapons, as a quick look at half a dozen news bulletins on a single night (Wednesday last week) demonstrates.

The Glenn Hoddle story had broken on Saturday and swamped coverage all week. On Wednesday night ITV's The Big Match even delayed coverage of the appetising Oxford United/Chelsea replay to do its own retrospective news report. But by Wednesday the general news programmes were desperate to "move the story forward" with a new angle.

So the BBC's Six o'Clock led with Howard Wilkinson, the once king of England football, ahead of the Lewisham 12, beached in Norfolk, Virginia, for what was either a drunken brawl or a warm-hearted Irish singalong, and a distinctly ho-hum story about dirty loos on British beaches. Clean loos would have passed the man-bites-dog test better.

The Nine o'Clock led on a stronger story, that Amnesty International was going to investigate not only punishment beatings but also the whole legal and judicial context in Northern Ireland. In second place it treated the Hoddle epic as a political story, about William Hague's inept attempt to pin the blame on the Prime Minister and the Prime Minister's successful attempt to laugh it off.

News 24, of course, doesn't have a single deadline or a single running order. It runs headlines every quarter of an hour, and stories nudge their way into the headlines and stay there as long as they continue to have legs. At 11 o'clock on Wednesday, the top headline was a boating tragedy in Milford Haven.

For me the most powerful and interesting lead was on Sky, which featured the court ruling in the US which fined an anti-abortion group for putting up wanted posters on the internet targeting doctors who carry out abortions. Viewers sometimes complain that the news on all channels is much the same. A look at one night's story lists suggests this is not so. There are always alternative stories, and editors do choose between them.

They also present them differently. And here there are signs, if not of lockstep, at least of a tendency to follow fashion. Increasingly, stories are introduced by studio presenters talking to ("doing a two-way with") the reporter, who then introduces his or her package. There are other stylistic nuances. Sky, for example, uses quite wordy graphics, which in spite of a slightly old-fashioned look give authority to reports and supply information effectively.

The overall impression this particular night's viewing gave me was that the BBC, so far from being marignalised by better-resourced competitors, is in danger of tripping over itself. It has so many correspondents being asked to do pieces for so many outlets that it may be losing focus. Sky may actually benefit from its relatively small resources. More, in this fiercely competitive market, may be less.