ITV will be forced to find earlier slot for 'Nightly News'

Television watchdogs have ordered ITV to move its nightly news bulletin to an earlier slot in a legally binding direction that could lead to a court battle over the scrapping of
News at Ten.

Television watchdogs have ordered ITV to move its nightly news bulletin to an earlier slot in a legally binding direction that could lead to a court battle over the scrapping of News at Ten.

The Independent Television Commission said yesterday that it ordered the network to reschedule the 11pm Nightly News because ITV's proposals to revive flagging viewer numbers after the axing of News at Ten were not satisfactory.

Broadcasting sources said it seemed likely that the ITC would accept a move to 10.30pm, but that ITV had refused the compromise.

ITV could now take the issue to judicial review to test whether broadcasting legislation gives the regulator the power to issue the direction. "The clock is ticking and in the next two to three weeks there will be an outcome," said an ITV insider.

ITV officials have given the ITC several proposals designed to improve overall audiences for news. "We offered £21m of additional investment in peak-time programmes, £3m extra for regional programmes and to move the news to ten o'clock during election periods and for big events," a spokeswoman said.

However, the ITC was not persuaded that the measures would turn around the 14 per cent drop in news audiences which have occurred since News at Ten ended.

Attention is now focused on the likelihood of a challenge to the ITC's order succeeding. The watchdog is in unchartered waters as it has never before made such an order to a television company. But the commission has never lost a judicial review. Insiders at the network say legal opinion so far has suggested that its case is "robust," but not without risk.

News At Ten was dropped in March 1999 to allow ITV more flexibility with its schedules, showing more drama, films and entertainment shows without the need to break for news.

Although unpopular with politicians and many media figures, the shake-up was approved by the ITC provided audiences for national and regional news bulletins were retained. Yet ITC monitoring showed that combined audiences for the Nightly News and the 6.30pm bulletin had fallen by 13.9 per cent compared with the figures for their predecessors.

ITV suggested ploughing more cash into peak time programming, leaving the Nightly News at 11pm, but the ITC turned that down last month.

One difficulty for ITV is the number of senior figures involved in making a decision. The many regional licensees are having to craft a response together that will also satisfy their advertisers.

* ITV's coverage of the Queen Mother's birthday pageant attracted audiences of more than 6m in the 5pm to 7pm period - the highest since records began in 1992. The BBC, which turned down the television rights, had a 26.9 per cent audience share at 6pm compared to ITV's 45 per cent.

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