Rolling news spins, repeats, goes live, goes on...
On The Press
Sunday 18 December 2005
The ITV News Channel is closing. Media management is no better than any other at plain English, so those ending its life said the reason was to "increase the network's focus on developing new media solutions and strengthening ITV1's news offering". Happily, we haven't space to deconstruct this management gobbledegook.
So farewell, ITV's contribution to rolling news, live news, 24-hour news, all news all the time. Statistically, it will not be missed. Like its UK rivals, Sky News and BBC News 24, it was available only to digital multi-channel households. The audience measurement firm BARB reckons about 2.6 million people tuned in each week for an average of two minutes. Sky and BBC draw about 4.8 million and 5.1 million respectively for an average of nine minutes a week. To put that in perspective, traditional early-evening news programmes on BBC1 and ITV draw audiences of between 4.5 million and five million each day.
What do we get? Take last Thursday on the three channels. The stories that day were the Iraq elections, the start of the EU summit, Roy Keane signing for Celtic, the verdict in the Chelsea millionaire murder trial and further investigations into the Durham doctor cleared of murdering three elderly men.
All these stories rolled along the rolling news, with developments and new stories joining in: England trounced in Karachi cricket match, Liverpool win in Japan, planet warms up half a degree. Excitement - or breaking news as we think of it, or News Alert as Sky thinks of it - at 5.15pm as all channels report a second man charged over the Bradford policewoman murder.
The channels varied only in their non-mainstream stories, and then not much. By Friday morning, when I checked that all was rolling well in the world where news never stops, I found reports on the EU summit, the Durham doctor, the Chelsea millionaire murder trial verdict, second arrest in the Bradford policewoman murder ... it all seemed somehow familiar.
When a story is truly huge, once or twice a year at most, like 7 July, 11 September, or even, at a lower level, the oil-storage fire or a new Tory leader, we want more coverage than normal, and rolling 24-hour news provides it. But then we used to have extended news and news interruptions to scheduled programmes before there was rolling news; and now "ordinary" channels tap into rolling news when there is a big breaker.
So what is 24-hour rolling news for? It is useful for airport lounges. It is useful for hotel bedrooms. It is useful for those of us obsessed with news to update when we want to, without having to wait for the scheduled bulletin. But I find internet news more convenient for that, as it is for providing full texts of speeches, full details of reports. Don't run away with the idea that all news all the time means any more depth; it doesn't.
The downside of rolling news is that it confuses constant availability of news, so-called "live news", with comprehensive news. Radio and internet news, also always available, have been selected and ordered by the news provider. Live news presumes that stories are continuous and that we want to sit watching them all unfold, however slowly.
The defining word is "live". Live means we "go live to", which means we interrupt what we are doing. Were we to finish it instead and then go not quite live (I have become a great fan of the Sky+ recorder, which allows time-shifting as well) to the interview, what would we lose?
But "as it happens" is all, and is the justification for three, soon to be two, 24-hour news channels. It doesn't provide more news: it spins it out, repeats it, adds spurious or inconsequential extra information. And worst, through "going live" to reporters with nothing to add, it encourages interpretation or comment.
The funniest programme of the autumn has been Broken News on BBC2. Only because its send-up of breaking news, the intensity of its triviality, its concentration on timing (live) rather than content, on moving subtitles to indicate news is breaking as we watch, on breathless pace and shifts of scene, are so worryingly realistic.
Additional research by Nick Rogers
Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield
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