BBC may switch main bulletin to 'News at Ten' slot

The BBC is considering moving the Nine O'Clock News back an hour to the prime spot left by the scrapping of ITV's Newsat Ten.

Yesterday executives denied that there were immediate plans to alter the timing of the flagship programme, which attracts 4.5 million viewers a night, but admitted that scheduling was constantly under review. For some time there has been talk of relocating the Nine O'Clock News from its peak time to a later slot and many within the corporation are said to view the change favourably.

Supporters of the change believe that a switch would boost viewing figures during the highly competitive 7pm to 10pm slot, allowing the BBC to schedule in more popular shows.

However, any potential move is viewed as "highly sensitive" and there is understandable caution, with fears that it would be badly received, particularly in the light of the controversy that surrounded ITV's decision to abandon News at Ten. Traditionalists fear it would be viewed as diluting the BBC's commitment to current affairs.

Fiona Williams, a BBC spokeswoman, said yesterday: "Discussions may well have taken place though we don't have any current plans to make that move. Any talk of that is pure speculation.

"But everything is always under review. We are always looking at scheduling of all programmes to make sure we provide the best service."

Only last week, Chris Smith, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, revealed that the BBC has been told to spice up its spring schedules. Greg Dyke, the new BBC director general, was told by Mr Smith at a meeting that the programming should be more exciting with additional "humdingers" such as Walking with Dinosaurs, the multimillion-pound computer animated documentary. It is not known how Mr Dyke views any suggestion that the Nine O'Clock News should move. However, he will be aware of the potential pitfalls of tampering with traditional schedules.

ITV has come under considerable pressure since dropping News at Ten in favour of a Nightly News at 11pm, while suffering from plummeting viewing figures for the bulletin. Last month a Commons select committee report suggested ITV should be forced to reinstate the original programme.

The Culture, Media and Sport Committee said that the Independent Television Commission, which has powers to force a reversal of the decision, should "require" ITV to bring back the bulletin.

ITV maintains that its new programme schedule is a success, boosting its peak-time audience share from 37.9 per cent to 38.8 per cent.

The BBC described claims that the future of Newsnight was in question as "absolute nonsense" yesterday. A spokesman said there were no plans to change the programme radically or scrap it.