Here is the BBC news, and this is audience research dictating it
Wednesday 07 October 1998
At the high-brow end of the agenda, 50 per cent of a restyled Nine O'Clock News will be devoted to foreign coverage. Tony Hall, the director of news and current affairs who has overseen the project, said yesterday that audiences gave enormous support to the fact that the BBC has retained 50 foreign bureaux around the world, while its main rivals CNN and ITN have only 32 and 50 respectively.
The danger in the new emphasis on foreign news is the real risk that audiences may switch off.
But Mr Hall says that "the challenge is to engage as many people as we can in a serious-minded agenda. To engage everyone in things that matter."
At the popular end, a new Six O'Clock News will have a much greater emphasis on regional stories, and aim to "reflect the diversity of the UK in a way that no other single broadcaster can match".
The overall aim is to make each of the BBC outlets more distinctive in the way it delivers news - a priority as the digital age dawns and competition becomes more intense.
Despite the size of the overhaul, however, there is to be no increase in the size of the BBC's news budget.
Question Time will retain David Dimbleby as presenter, but will go interactive - taking audience opinions by e-mail. Newsnight is to be relaunched and will incorporate an 11pm news bulletin.
Panorama is to be given a brief to do more long-term investigative journalism, an activity that has become rare in many other news outlets.
There will be more room on news programmes for "intelligent coverage" of topics such as fashion, popular culture and consumer affairs - a development which Mr Hall denies is "dumbing down", but instead shows a willingness to embrace aspects of the "new economy". Business journalism will be moved to the mainstream of coverage, instead of being sidelined to particular strands, such as the current Business Breakfast, which is to be axed.
A new weekly current affairs programme is to be commissioned to replace Here and Now, a mid-week show with a popular agenda that has undergone various changes in format, but has never actually taken off.
The new show will be produced out of Manchester for a non-metropolitan perspective, and will be a challenge for the new head of weekly programmes, Helen Boaden. She inherits a long history of failure to recreate the upbeat, regions-based success of Nationwide.
Tony Hall also said yesterday that a major new analysis programme will be commissioned for BBC2, which will aim to take the approach of Radio 4's Analysis and make it work on television. The BBC has made various attempts to do this in the past and, without exception, audiences have been low.
Mr Hall says that unlike some of the previous efforts, the new programme will not be a cheap studio discussion, but will use more expensive film and graphics to explore ideas on screen. "It's got to have a good budget," he confirms.
The programme is, again, a challenge for Ms Boaden.
Other new projects include a show looking at Europe, as well as a "news for schools" online service, intended to inculcate the BBC brand, and the idea that you can trust BBC news, into young people.
The new approach raises some difficult issues. On foreign coverage, for instance, the BBC says that it will build audiences by making foreign stories relevant to everyday British lives.
But some foreign news does not lend itself to that. Reporting on Somalia, Bangladesh or Kosovo does not, for example, usually have any direct link to the lives of the middle-class viewers in Croydon.
page 3, Review
HOW THE CORPORATION WILL CHANGE ITS CURRENT AFFAIRS PROGRAMMES
SIX O'CLOCK NEWS
NINE O'CLOCK NEWS
HERE AND NOW
A sort of friendlier, lighter version of the Nine O'clock news, often fronted by "good news" presenter Martyn Lewis. Has a feel of Middle England about it.
A cut-glass logo and sombre studio give the impression that this is the UK's most serious news, and the viewers had better sit up and take notice.
Flagship current affairs
programme which, in recent years has become increasingly focused on stories which explore a thesis about society - for instance, do single mothers get pregnant in order to claim benefits?
Decades-old format of David Dimbleby, a panel of three politicians, a token businesswoman and a
respectful studio audience.
Nightly opportunity to watch our politicians and
policy-makers being grilled by a tiger of an interviewer. Best is Jeremy Paxman, then Kirsty Wark, everyone else seems to be "training" to do it properly
In its most recent format, Here and Now is a weekly early evening studio
discussion programme that has Juliet Morris doing a fair impression of Robert Kilroy Silk.
Sends junior reporters off to shopping centres and
businesses from Newcastle to Portsmouth, to report on the state of British business.
GOING TO CHANGE?
The new emphasis on "personally useful news" will mean lots more regional stories at six oclock. From time to time, the entire programme will be based at the scene of a domestic story - for instance at the opening of the Scottish parliament. Specialists from regional newsrooms will be prominent, for instance, the crime correspondent in Norwich, who rarely makes an appearance on national
television at the moment, will get a much better airing.
The presentation is to be "warmer and more inclusive of the viewer", whilst the content becomes more "serious". A commitment to devoting half the programme to foreign coverage while other news organisations are busy closing bureaux around the world is brave. A victory for World Affairs editor John Simpson. More emphasis on explaining why Mr Greenspan's quarter percentage point cut in American interest rates affects the average British mortgage holder.
There is a strong re-emphasis on the "stories that affect our lives", which might raise fears of fewer important foreign programmes, such as Fergal Keane's investigations of genocide in Rwanda - which were first class journalism, but won pitiful audience figures. The top brass, though, say they want to see Panorama doing more "serious investigations" and that they will be given "appropriate budgets" for the purpose. Tony Hall says Panorama will not be moved from its current 10pm Monday slot.
The BBC says audiences want the programme to be fresher and more modern. It will turn it into a more interactive discussion programme with opportunities for people to contribute from home,
initially by e-mail. Recently at a BBC digital high-tech demonstration a Question Time of the future was shown, with audiences at home voting on issues by pointing their zappers at the television. Still David
Heart-warmingly, the BBC
describes Newsnight as "the cornerstone" of BBC2's journalism - and it is to receive a major boost. A new structure, with a news and sports bulleting at 11pm, and a new Saturday edition. The specialist content of the programme will be strengthened and "guest correspondents" will be invited to give "fresh and
surprising" perspectives to news events. Jeremy Paxman remains.
The programme is to be
abolished after a pretty
dismal history. In its early days it tried an American
approach with glamourous young reporters investigating stories "which affect ordinary people". It didn't work well. The BBC will now commission a new weekly presenter-led programme produced in Manchester, which "will leave viewers feeling positive - not disempowered". Brainstorming sessions are already under way in BBC offices to determine its exact format.
It is to go. Business
journalists will go to a new economics and business unit, while Breakfast News overall will get a revamp, with a bulletin every 15 minutes. After 8.15 the programme, says the BBC, will adopt a different pace and feel for the audience staying at home. There will be "personally useful" strands on subjects such as health, money, food and technology, plus regular audience interaction and a
Every five years the BBC tries to re-create Nationwide's success in making the regions exciting nationally. It usually fails, and is likely to do so again. Unless, that is, Jill Dando can save the day.
The emphasis on foreign news is a triumph for serious journalism. The big question is - will the BBC stick with the policy if audiences revert to their usual tendency to switch to another channel when the news is about "abroad"?
commitment is good news. But overall, the programme looks a little old- fashioned, and is in sore need of a facelift.
Interactivity is great. The problem is those panels. They give the impression of, somehow, being always the same people.
Yes, for the time being. The big threat to Newsnight comes from Network Television, which would like to move it to a later slot. John Birt has resisted the pressure, but will the next director general be as tough?
Here and Now had exactly the same brief, and failed. Maybe the new version, like the six o'clock news, is in need of Jill Dando.
There must surely be an
audience for a programme that does not feature wacky DJ types such as Denise Van
Outen or Chris Evans. It has a chance.
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