Labour orders ITV news rethink

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PRESSURE ON independent television executives to restore News At Ten intensified last night after it emerged that Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, had written to complain about the programme's replacement.

Mr Smith has told the Independent Television Commission, ITV's watchdog, that he is worried about falling ratings and the quality of the new ITN bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm, The Independent has learnt.

His letter, sent this week, is the first official proof that the Government is determined to see the restoration of News At Ten before the next general election.

Tony Blair and Mr Smith were said to be "livid" when the ITC decided last year to agree to ITV's request to axe the programme and replace it with feature films and dramas.

To reassure ministers, the ITC insisted there would be strict conditions to the switch and it promised a review next April to assess the impact of the move.

However, poor ratings for the new national and regional news bulletins have prompted Mr Smith to intervene and remind the commission of its own conditions.

When News At Ten ended in March, its average audience was 5.8 million. But the new 11pm bulletin has been drawing as few as 3.3 million viewers. Trevor McDonald's 6.30pm bulletin has attracted an average audience of 5.3million.

In his letter, Mr Smith says he wants a "rigorous" assessment of the axeing of News At Ten and expresses his fears about the "quality and reach" of its replacements. The Secretary of State is also worried about about the lack of a "mixed diet" for viewers who have been subjected to a succession of James Bond films, game shows and dramas.

ITV was allowed to scrap News At Ten on condition that it widened its range of programming between 9pm and 11pm, and provided 30 minutes of high-quality regional programmes in peak time.

Although the one-off review in April was originally intended to be a formality, the Government now wants it to take the form of a "rigorous" inquiry into the effects of the move.

Mr Smith's letter also refers specifically to the dramatic audience reduction for the regional news programmes that precede the 6.30 bulletin.

His complaint echoes comments by the ITC chairman, Sir Robin Biggam, who recently expressed his alarm at the drop in ratings for the regional programmes. In some areas audiences have almost halved.

Mr Smith's intervention follows remarks by David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, that the loss of the programme led to millions of people "switching off" their links not just with politics but with society altogether.

Downing Street is also understood to be extremely concerned that a large section of the population has been excluded from what was often its only source of political information.

ITV executives are already facing close scrutiny by the Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and they are expected to be called to give evidence over the next few months. The committee's chairman, Gerald Kaufman, has described the axeing of News At Ten as "a new milestone in the dumbing down of Britain".

A hostile review of the changes would inevitably put further pressure on the ITC to act. The Government cannot intervene directly in the issue, but the watchdog does have the power to force television bosses to restore the programme to its original time.

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