ITN veterans hit back over 'News at Ten'

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The Independent Online

TElevision regulators will meet this week to decide on the possible reinstatement of News at Ten in the wake of an extraordinary attack on ITN by some of its most famous names.

With ITV management due to appear before the Independent Television Commission on Thursday, the men who ran independent television for most of the last half-century have complained of a "fundamental decay at ITV's heart" in a 39-point submission to regulators.

The letter from former newsreader Sir Alastair Burnet and the three heads of ITN from 1956 to 1991 - Sir David Nicholas, Sir Geoffrey Cox and Nigel Ryan - accuses ITV of "the misuse of the popular news-viewing time of 10pm". News at Ten had been replaced by "weak series, entertainment trivia and mildly pornographic programmes," they said. Their submission will now be considered by the ITC.

ITV is keeping quiet on the matter. It announced a self-imposed silence after the ITC unexpectedly bared its teeth and gave ITV a fortnight to come up with programming improvements. But it is thought likely that ITV managers will try to improve the general schedule in the expectation that higher audiences during the evening would lead to more people watching the news at 11pm.

But the regulator has thrown the ball back into ITV's court with its demand to improve ratings which have slumped by 14 per cent - around a million viewers - since the bulletin was moved.

The ITC insists it is up to ITV to work out how to uphold its public service commitment to news and regional programming. "It is not up to us to suggest what they should do," one said last week.

But if it can provide no satisfactory solutions, the ITC could force ITV to screen the news at 10pm, with a compromise of 10.30pm more likely.

The Prime Minister, the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, and Gerald Kaufman, who heads the Commons culture select committee, have all expressed concern that audiences have plummeted since the news was moved to the later slot.

The ITC ruled last month that the quality of the 11pm bulletin was satisfactory and that the range of new programmes between 9pm and 11pm had been delivered. But the decline in the audience placed ITV in breach of its obligation to compete effectively with the BBC. And the suspicion has persisted that 11pm is too late for most viewers, and the problem has been compounded because the shift has also been detrimental to regional programmes.

ITV has continued to maintain that the 11pm news needed time to "bed in" in the schedule. The shift enabled more flexible programming, including the running of feature films without a break.