And finally... ITN looks forward to another 50 years

Now the birthday party's over, ITN must square up to the challenges of a new era, writes Raymond Snoddy
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The Independent Online

All this was broadcast on the evening of 23 February 1956, and it's the earliest surviving example of an Independent Television News bulletin. Even then, there was an "And finally..." item, but on this occasion it was merely the good news that a thaw was on the way.

The first ever ITN broadcast was on 22 September 1955, also with Chataway, and the 50th anniversary was celebrated last week at a grand bash in Covent Garden. There was a show reel, speeches, and a version of University Challenge between ITN presenters and politicians that was marred by poor acoustics. Among the guests was Sir Christopher Chataway, now 74.

"ITN has become, over 50 years, an institution," says its chief executive Mark Wood. "It's one of the great world news organisations, and that reputation has been built up through strong journalism and a lot of scoops. There is, I think, a very distinctive ITN way of making news approachable and accessible," the former Reuters editor adds.

Once all the champagne has been drunk, there will still be plenty of new challenges for ITN: it lost the Channel Five news contract to Sky News last year; the ITV News channel is in third place behind BBC News 24 and Sky; and talks will soon begin for the renewal, or otherwise, of its Channel 4 news contract.

There are ownership issues to be resolved. ITV, which owns 40 per cent of ITN, has said it wants to acquire the news company, but there's no sign of anything happening now. The stakes of United Business Media, Reuters and Daily Mail and General Trust will be hard to value should everyone want to sell.

As it builds an ambitious "non-TV news business" in everything from content for 3G phones to educational software to TV archives, ITN is watching the activities of the BBC like a hawk. "The BBC has a tradition of entering markets in force with large resources, often giving away content for free and therefore wrecking the economics. That's our worry," says Wood.

The ITN chief executive believes he has had a sympathetic hearing from both the Government and BBC director-general Mark Thompson, but wants to see that the BBC's "market impact assessments" on its services are applied as soon as possible. BBC governors should be well informed on the issue - one of their number is the former ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tate.

ITN believes it's in the lead in supplying special news and entertainment packages to the 3G operators such as Vodafone and O2, and a streamed news channel for Orange. ITN's television archive business has tripled in size over the past four years, and should be its second-biggest operation in a couple of years. At the moment, ITN's non-television news operations account for around 30 per cent of the company's annual revenues of more than £100m. The aim is to take it to 50 per cent.

"We have a very strong new-media business delivering news to every platform for digital markets. We are growing faster in that area than any UK or global competitor. So, what we are building is a global business," says Wood, a former editor of Reuters.

Despite the loss of the Channel 5 contract, ITN's news business has expanded, with More4 News for Channel 4, and the production of London News. "We're limbering up for talks with Channel 4 and will bid our hardest to renew the contract. We sense that they are very happy with the product and that's a good start. I think what they want from us is new ideas on how to take the product forward, and that is what they will get," says Wood.

A further good sign for ITN is that Channel 4 News has been reaching a younger audience. The growth in use of video phones should help that process. "We've always had to be a bit more engaging than the BBC, livelier, faster-paced," says Wood.

As for ITN news coverage, Mark Wood believes it is doing "fantastically well" at the moment: "At 50, ITN is in terrific shape. We've built a great brand, and we are well positioned to be one of the big new-media companies of the next 50 years."