Conor Dignam on broadcasting

Tony and his influential family bow out with a bada-boom-bada-bing

So it is farewell then to The Sopranos. The HBO-produced series now sleeps with the fishes after the final episode of the award-winning US import was shown on E4 last night. The chances are that you didn't see that episode, or many of the ones which preceded it. The Sopranos might have been must-see TV among the media industry's chattering classes but it struggled to find an audience in Britain.

It started with about 1.6 million viewers on Channel 4 seven years ago and it has been going downhill since then. Over the past few years, the programme's ratings have dropped faster than members of Tony Soprano's New Jersey crime family, falling to fewer than 200,000 viewers for most episodes. But even though the final series screened in the UK went out with more of a whimper than a bang, it remains a show that has changed the face of television.

The Sopranos was created for HBO's pay-television channel, an environment able to show and do what US networks such as NBC and ABC would never dream of. Its phenomenal success in the US showed that mainstream American audiences could cope with a harder darker world than the networks (and their advertisers) had believed.

This was visceral television, with razor-sharp scripts and complex characterisation that made the characters real in a way few television dramas ever manage. The success of The Sopranos forced a rethink across American television. Other cable channels realised that they would have to raise their game to compete with HBO and the networks themselves began to look for bolder and more risky ideas.

Shows such as 24, The Wire, The Shield, CSI, Deadwood and even Desperate Housewives all took something from The Sopranos in talking to a grown-up audience that wanted more from the shows they watched.

Tony Soprano and his families (the Mob one and the blood one) also helped influence what happens over here, with British commissioners and producers inspired by the show and its rich and layered offering.

The Sopranos may not have got the British audience it deserved but it is arguably the most influential and best drama series made in the past decade.

And finally...

Bong! Michael Grade has turned back the clock and is bringing back News At Ten and Sir Trevor McDonald. The move was anticipated from the moment Grade walked in the door at Gray's Inn Road – but bringing back the veteran newsreader was a surprise.

Is it the right move, however? Whereas Grade seemed to have a Midas touch at ITV for a few months after his arrival, doubts are now being raised about his leadership and strategic direction. His handling of the Deloitte report and its findings was attacked from all sides. Grade seemed to veer between arrogance and belligerence and the decision to publish the report on the same day that the BBC announced its cost-cutting measures was seen as opportunistic and cynical.

Grade angrily dismissed such suggestions, but what other explanation can there possibly be? His insistence that ITV, under his command, was a "zero tolerance" zone now looks like an empty boast, given his lenient treatment of the production staff who were shown to have ripped off the viewing public with shows such as Ant And Dec's Saturday Night Take-Away (your money) and Soapstar Superstar. There was also a sense of anti-climax which greeted his recent strategic review of ITV's business, which looked very similar to the strategy pursued by his predecessor Charles Allen. So, whereas a few months ago the news move might have been hailed as another example of Grade putting ITV back on the road to recovery, now there are doubts.

Some media buyers question whether this will really have an impact on ITV1's ratings and whether it is too little too late, after the original decision to drop the 10pm news and the famous bongs back in 1999. After all, BBC1 was quick to occupy the 10pm slot and ITV rather shot itself in the foot by moving its late news around so much that it was dubbed "News at When?"

A look at the ratings performance so far this year shows why ITV1 has decided to make the move and bring back Sir Trevor. In the first ten months of this year, ITV1 averaged 4.6 million viewers between 9pm and 10pm (a 19.5 per cent share of the available audience) and was beaten by BBC1 with 5.2 million (22.6 per cent). When ITV1's drama, comedy or movie goes up against the BBC News At 10 O'Clock each night it loses out – badly. The average number of viewers for the BBC's 10pm new slot is 4.9 million (23.6 per cent of the audience), compared with 3.4 million (16.6 per cent) for ITV1 while the BBC news is on. Faced with the choice of 30 minutes of news on BBC1 or whatever is happening on ITV1 at the same time, more viewers choose the news. ITV's 10.30pm news bulletin has never achieved what the network hoped for – with a target of at least four million viewers. Most nights, it atrracts less than half the audience of the BBC1 news and presents a daily headache for the ITV1 weeknight schedule. Almost anyway you look at it, moving the ITV News to the 10pm slot with the respected face of Sir Trevor looks like the right decision. It will end the difficulty of programming the remaining half-an-hour in the schedule after any one-hour drama or factual programme starting at 9pm. And, in ITV's thinking, it will bring more viewers to the channel between 10pm and 10.30pm, simply by taking viewers away from the BBC News At 10 O'CLock.

But if moving the news makes sense, there are also questions about what sort of bulletin it will be and whether bringing back Sir Trevor is the right move. The former Sky News presenter Julie Etchingham is moving over to ITV to co-host the bulletin with Sir Trevor, with the plan that she will eventually take over the main role. But, in doing so, they will have to replace two experienced presenters, Mark Austin and Mary Nightingale, who could justifiably feel a little put out by their treatment. Austin has done an outstanding job since taking on the anchor role relinquished by Sir Trevor in 2005. He combines strong presenting skills with the authority and gravitas of a journalist who can report from a war or disaster zone.

ITV's 10.30pm bulletin is regularly a superior product to the BBC's offering at 10pm. It works harder to find new lines on the day's stories and often beats its rivals to the punch with new or exclusive information. If the new News At Ten can retain the journalism and energy of the current 10.30pm bulletin – it will be interesting to see which channel viewers turn to over time.

Moyles finally goes into reverse

There was some much-needed good news for the commercial radio sector in last week's Rajar figures covering listening for the third quarter of this year.

There was the obvious stuff that made the headlines – the fact that some 280,000 listeners had switched the dial from Radio 1 "saviour" Chris Moyles, and that Radio 2's Terry Wogan show was down 240,000 to 7.6 million. Jonathan Ross's Radio 2 show had also lost 200,000 listeners. BBC Radio Five Live also had a poor patch, falling to its lowest listening figures for seven years.

So, bad news for the BBC, which of course is good news for the commercial sector, which has had something of a nightmare in the last few years as the BBC left it behind in total audience listening.

But there was also good news in the world of digital listening, where commercial radio is finding itself well ahead of the BBC. When it comes to digital-only stations, commercial radio is scoring some notable successes.

Emap's The Hits is now the UK's biggest digital-only station, with 1.4 million weekly listeners. Its sister station Smash Hits recorded weekly listening of 990,000. (Here I should declare a semi-detached interest, in that the Emap group that owns these stations also publishes Broadcast magazine.) GCap's Planet Rock is the third-most listened to digital-only station, with 548,000 listeners.

This is all still relatively small beer compared to the main battle being waged in analogue radio – but it is some good news for the commercial radio sector, which has invested heavily in digital and is now seeing some movement in the right direction.

Conor Dignam is publishing director of Broadcast magazine

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