Bells toll for `News at Ten' as early time slot beckons

News at Ten could soon become News at Seven Thirty as ITV bosses plot once again to move the programme to an earlier time slot, a ratings-driven manoeuvre which looks set to irk the Government but which could not be blocked by it.

Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is said by industry sources to have poured cold water on the proposal, describing it as "very dangerous" when he was sounded out by the ITV Network Centre.

Traditionally all the major parties at Westminster have been keen to keep the programme in its present time slot because at that time it is able to broadcast the results of late Commons votes.

But senior ITV sources say a provisional evening schedule is being drawn up, with an hour of family drama following the news at 8pm, and peak-time popular programming, such as films, taking up a two-hour window between 9pm and 11pm.

City analysts say ITV companies are loath to drop the idea as it could make the sector in excess of pounds 30m from advertising each year. Advertisers would be more willing to part with their cash if movies or prime-time dramas were not interrupted by the news.

A spokeswoman for the newly retitled Department of Culture, Media and Sport yesterday acknowledged that it had no power to stop such a move.

"It is a matter for the Independent Television Commission," she said. The ITC confirmed this, pointing out that its only stipulation would be that the programme was transmitted simultaneously across the United Kingdom at some point in peak time.

The ITV regions have not been able to agree on an alternative in the past, but several factors seem set to force them to co-operate this time.

A confidential report drawn up for them by management consultants Bain & Co urges them to act in a more unified fashion to stop audience slippage to the BBC and other terrestrial and satellite networks.

The Bain report is expected to be acted upon swiftly by Richard Eyre when he leaves Capital Radio to become ITV's chief executive in the autumn. This is a new post which indicates the ITV companies' determination to address their collective deficiencies.

The future of News at Ten has appeared uncertain since Channel 5 started to schedule a film against it every weekday evening. The movies it has played to date have not drawn large audiences, but that may change when the channel starts to play more appealing movies.

This is not the first time a move for News at Ten has been mooted. John Major personally overturned a previous attempt to push through the shift in 1993. Among those in the present Government opposed to any change to the status quo is Peter Mandelson, the minister without portfolio who backed a Commons motion calling for the News at Ten to remain in its current slot.

n Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has vetoed plans by the ITC to have Sir Michael Bishop stay on for a further year as chairman of Channel 4 when his current spell in that post ends in December.

Sir Michael, who is also chairman of the British Midland airline, has never concealed his Conservative sympathies, and leased a plane to John Major during the last general election. However, colleagues at the station say he has always run it in a non-political fashion and see the move as petty revenge by Mr Smith.

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