ITV told: You've got a month to win back news audience

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The Independent Online

The Independent Television Commission yesterday issued its sternest warning yet over the dropping of News At Ten and gave ITV a month to find a way of winning back viewers.

The regulatory body said ITV must stem an "unacceptable" drop in audiences for news bulletins following the scrapping of the programme. There has been a lot of criticism of ITV for axing News At Tenbut the ITC verdict had been the most eagerly awaited because it alone can order ITV to reinstate the bulletin if it deems it has broken agreements.

An ITC inquiry found ITV failed to meet two of four conditions agreed over the schedule shake-up. It failed to maintain levels of viewers and the changes had an impact on regional programmes. News At Ten was dropped a year ago to make way for film and drama. The 10pm slot and 5.40pm bulletin were replaced by bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm.

Yesterday the ITC said combined audiences for the bulletins had dropped 13.9 per cent. It was satisfied the quality of ITN's news services continued and the range of new programmes between 9pm and 11pm had been delivered, as had news headlines as close to 10pm as possible. But the ITC chairman, Sir Robin Biggam, said: "In the two key public-service commitments of the audiences for national/international news and regional programmes the new ITV schedule has failed to deliver. It has suffered a substantial loss of viewers to its evening news programmes and its share of combined BBC and ITV news audience during the first year of the new schedule ... The changes to the schedule have also had an unacceptable impact overall on regional news audiences, with a decline in aggregate audiences for main regional news magazines of 22 per cent. This reduced to 16.4 per cent following the introduction of some changes to the schedule, agreed by the ITC at the beginning of this year."

ITV now has to put forward proposals on remedial action to address the decline before the commission meets on May 18. An ITC spokeswoman said: "It is now over to ITV to come up with the proposals."

In a statement ITV admitted that "the impact on news audiences of the changes to its schedules has been greater than anticipated in the first year ... ITV is focusing on finding ways to improve the ratings performance of the main news programmes."

The shake-up has been an advertising bonanza: ITV chiefs said they had made £70m in extra revenue from scrapping News At Ten.