The Big Question: What does the 'Kaplinsky effect' at Channel Five mean for TV news?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

Five announced yesterday that the "Natasha Effect" had been the cause of an upsurge in the station's news ratings, giving a 72 per cent increase in audience share, albeit from a low base. Since Kaplinsky began hosting the programme on 18 February, Five News has averaged 847,000 viewers, giving it a 6.9 per cent share of the total audience.

This compares with the 3.9 per cent share the bulletin had during the first six weeks of the year, when it was still in the hiatus that followed the departure of previous high-profile anchor, Kirsty Young, last August. The news was released shortly before the unveiling of the channel's new director of programmes, Ben Gale, making it a day of positive PR for a broadcaster that has had a turbulent recent past.

What was the background to the Kaplinsky transfer?

When Five News came on the scene in 1997 it quickly won a reputation for doing things differently, offering a pacy bulletin that felt accessible and fresh. Kirsty Young famously perched on the edge of the desk in an informal style that was copied by some rivals. Though she has now moved into radio as the presenter of Desert Island Discs, Young was at the vanguard of a new wave of female news presenters that included Fiona Bruce, Kay Burley, Sophie Raworth, Emily Maitlis, Julie Etchingham and Kate Silverton, among others.

Still, Kaplinsky's million-pound marriage to Britain's least-watched terrestrial channel represented a gamble for the broadcaster and the presenter herself. At the BBC she progressed from the couch of Breakfast to hosting the Six O'Clock News. But Five, which is attempting to reposition itself in readiness for coping with the even more competitive market it will face after digital switchover in 2012, persuaded Kaplinsky to turn away from a potentially broad BBC portfolio in order to become the face of a channel's news output. Five's news editor, David Kermode, believes that the newscaster known as "Spangles" can give the channel's bulletin the pzazz to get it noticed in an era when news has never been more readily available. Kaplinsky wanted the challenge. As the wife of an investment banker, she is not short of money.

How did Five News change when Kaplinsky arrived?

Ahead of Kaplinsky's debut the broadcaster splashed out on a hefty marketing campaign, using the slogan "News with Personality" and featuring the presenter dressed in jeans. Kaplinsky herself was annoyed by the fascination with her hairstyle and dress sense ("I'm not here to be a fashion show"), and, indeed, Kermode has opted for a bulletin that tries not to rely on gimmicks and concentrates on content. Sitting Kaplinsky on an expensive magenta chaise longue is one obvious change in direction for a bulletin that has a well-earned reputation for innovation.

What's special about her?

Kaplinsky's recognition factor extends well beyond the news studio, largely thanks to her abilities on the ballroom floor, which saw her crowned winner of the BBC reality show Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, going on to present the second series with Bruce Forsyth. Initially reluctant to put on the sequins, she found herself a great favourite of Middle England, and there was fascination over her family history. Kaplinsky spent part of her childhood in Kenya, to where her Jewish father had been forced into exile from South Africa as an opponent of apartheid. The BBC2 genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? revealed that the relatives of the newsreader had been murdered by the Nazis in Belarus.

Is Kaplinsky the highest-paidnewsreader?

Her £1m-a-year deal is unprecedented. That's not to say that she was the first newscaster that Five News approached. The BBC's Kate Silverton was also offered the job, though sources at Five say she would have been paid somewhat less.

But isn't Five the poor relation when it comes to TV news?

The pinnacles of television news reading are still the 10pm bulletins of the BBC and ITV, currently going head to head in a battle that the BBC is comfortably winning. Huw Edwards and the Ten O'Clock News team are enjoying audiences of around 5 million, and more than 13 million tune in during the course of a week. Channel 4 News is widely lauded for the quality of its coverage. Five News has a smaller proportion of ABC1 viewers than its rivals but enjoys industry recognition and was shortlisted as "News Programme of the Year" at last month's Royal Television Society TV Journalism awards.

How important is the news to the output of the various channels?

For the terrestrial broadcasters, all of which have a form of public service remit, the news bulletin is a crucial part of the network's identity. ITV recently used the relaunch of News at Ten, hosted by Sir Trevor McDonald, as a central plank in its strategy to revive its flagship channel ITV1. News is the very core of the BBC, while Channel 4 News was described by that organisation's founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs as its "most important programme". Five News may not be quite as integral but it is crucial in defining the channel as a serious player.

How difficult is it to read the news?

Though such noted broadcasters as John Humphrys and Andrew Marr have scoffed at the demands of newscasting, and female presenters have been derided as "autocuties", the competition at the top suggests it's not that simple. Edwards insists on writing his own lines, and news readers are increasingly deployed in the field, which can mean Iraq or Afghanistan.

So should everymiddle-aged malenewsreader belooking for a new job?

Hardly. The return of the manly tones of Sir Trevor, 68, on News at Ten suggests that male veterans of the autocue are still allowed a longer shelf-life than mature women such as Moira Stuart, controversially dropped by the BBC last year. Meanwhile Edwards, 46, is the anchor of the Ten and the white-haired Jon Snow, 60, is the revered face of Channel 4 News. At those RTS awards, the prize for "Presenter of the Year" went to another male BBC stalwart, the Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman, 57.

So should every bulletin offer 'news with personality'?

Yes...

* Newscasting is no longer simply about being able to read a clever script off an autocue

* If we just want the headlines we can get them anytime, anywhere at the click of a mouse

* Television is part of the entertainment industry and news cannot operate in a void of its own

No...

* It is the quality of a bulletin's newsgathering operation that will determine its success

* The underlying trend in TV news is to move away from gimmickry and into serious analysis and explanation

* News audiences are different – they want information delivered with gravitas not with celebrity sparkle

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