ITN's news at teatime is missing the big stories

When
News At Ten bonged its last on 5 March this year, ITV's programming director, David Liddiment, said: "The important thing to remember is that the quality of news will not change, it is just the timing."

When News At Ten bonged its last on 5 March this year, ITV's programming director, David Liddiment, said: "The important thing to remember is that the quality of news will not change, it is just the timing."

But in television, timing can mean so much. The change has removed news from the peak viewing period when most people are available to watch. Inevitably lower audiences must be expected for the two bulletins, 6.30pm and 11pm, that have replaced it.

And the new scheduling also has an impact on the quality and type of news produced.

By airing so early it misses major stories from Parliament where votes rarely take place until nearer 10pm and, thanks to the time difference, important events in America will frequently happen after it has gone on air.

Furthermore an early-evening audience has a bigger mixture of children, housewives and others at home during the day and they tend to want lighter, more domestic fare than a more adult late evening audience. And the dictates of bedtime mean that when ITN does air foreign and political stories on its short 11pm bulletin there are on average 2.5 million fewer people watching than the 5.8 million who used to watch at 10pm.

The original News At Ten had the benefit of its central position in the schedule to proclaim itself as important, serious news, yet done with a human face, which the BBC could rarely match.

The wars in Biafra and Vietnam established the bulletin early on and, as technological change reduced the time it took to move footage around the globe from three days to three seconds, News At Ten was in place to benefit from the growing primacy of electronic news over print.

This, with the more human style of presenters such as Reginald Bosanquet, made its presenters stars in a way that the BBC would never have countenanced. By the Eighties, whenever anyone conducted a popularity poll of news readers there could only be one answer: Trevor McDonald. The portentous "bongs" at the beginning of each programme became one of those rare news theme tunes which enter the public consciousness.

Yet by the early Nineties, broadcasting was changing so rapidly that even the News at Ten institution was no longer safe. ITV was losing audience share to cable and satellite viewers and News At Ten came to be seen within ITV as a monstrous impediment, setting the schedule in concrete and preventing the channel from adopting flexible strategies to beat its competitors. Particularly irksome was the fact that the 9pm watershed meant that most Hollywood movies could only be started an hour before the news and therefore the films had to be interrupted.

In June 1993, at a secret meeting in a hotel near Birmingham, ITV's programming directors voted unanimously to scrap the bulletin. John Smith and John Major united in condemning the move, the majority of the press was hostile and ITV made a tactical mistake by boasting that it had no legal obligation to maintain the news at 10pm. In fact, within a week the Independent Television Commission (ITC) had faxed a stern reminder to the network that all the individual ITV companies had won their licences promising to maintain prime time news - most of them specifying 10pm. If they moved the news without the ITC's approval they could lose their licences.

Unprepared for the level of backlash ITV backed off, putting the idea on hold.

A generation change took place at ITV in 1997 when the chief executive, Richard Eyre, and Mr Liddiment arrived at a time when the network was facing a rebellion by advertisers because of falling audiences. The two committed themselves to increasing the channel's audience share but made plain that could be done only if the ITC would let it move films and dramas into the end of its evening peak viewing period. This time ITV submitted carefully argued documents to the ITC, pointing out how much more competition it was facing since the launch of Channel 5 and warning it would be further weakened by the imminent launch of new digital channels.

Despite the opposition of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Media, Culture and Sport, Chris Smith, the ITC accepted the network's arguments late last year and the last bongs went out in March.

The ITC allowed News At Ten to be moved, but with one caveat - that the whole idea be reviewed after a year. Mr Smith's letter to the Commission is the first skirmish in the battle that will envelop that review. So perhaps it is still too early to write the complete history of News At Ten.

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