Tonight at 10, the bongs are back. For Sir Trevor McDonald, it will change the way he has spent his evenings over the last couple of years.
"I'd got quite used to going home in the evening and sitting and opening a bottle of wine, or going off and playing tennis, or going to the gym, and you have to change those priorities," he confesses.
But the lure of coming out of retirement to relaunch ITV's News at Ten, nine years after it was ignominiously shunted from the slot it had held for decades, proved greater than the attraction of a fine claret or the rowing machine.
"It is very, very flattering to be asked to come back," says Sir Trevor. He is a sprightly 68, in a climate where fellow veteran newsreaders such as Anna Ford have complained of ageism. "It's terribly nice that after all this time it's still thought that I can do this job."
When Sir Trevor last fronted what came to be known as the "News at When", he was the sole presenter. This time, he will be accompanied in the studio by Julie Etchingham, poached from Sky News by ITN. Mark Austin, already a familiar face on ITV News, will make up the third part of the triumvirate, anchoring on-location reports and replacing Sir Trevor on Friday nights when the bulletin shifts to 11pm.
"I remember the days when I sat there on my own, and it now feels incredibly lonely," says Sir Trevor. He says being part of a two-person team "creates a greater atmosphere of warmth".
Etchingham agrees that a "double-header" suits the time of day and the audience. "You're in people's houses at a very personal time of the day. You have to tread carefully as you enter that. They don't want somebody barging in to bark at them – they want something that's friendly, approachable," she says.
Working on a late-night, half-hour-long news bulletin is "quite a gear change" for Etchingham, who spent six years at Sky, most recently presenting the main morning strand Sky News Today.
"It was a hard decision to leave Sky because I absolutely loved all my time there. It was a great place to work and a great team of journalists working there, but I'd been there for six years and this opportunity came up. I didn't make the decision in a snap fashion, but there are certain points in your career when you think you'd be pretty daft not to," she says.
The mother of two young sons, Etchingham will also have to make changes to her personal life to fit in with the late-night bulletin. "It's yet to be tested, but I think it will be fine," she says. "I'm used to organising my home life around whichever news shift I've been doing in the past. You just put the emphasis on having a different end of the day with your children."
So what can viewers expect when they tune in at 10pm? The title sequence is a 21st-century update of the 1992 opening, which zooms in on a map of Europe, the UK, London and then west up the Thames into the face of Big Ben. The early-Nineties version, state of the art in its day, now looks dated; the computer-generated replacement is meant to represent "Britain today, London today", with a dazzling view of Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Millennium wheel.
The set matches the title sequence, with a virtual London projected on to a screen behind the studio. Banishing the newsroom gimmicks of the Nineties, when Kirsty Young strutted around the Five News studio, Sir Trevor and Etchingham will be firmly seated behind a desk, offering a friendly face of authority to the viewer, although Etchingham will occasionally take to her feet to illustrate news stories on a computer touchscreen. The new logo for the bulletin takes the "X" from the face of Big Ben and projects it on to a curved screen behind the newsreaders.
What of the content? How will it differ from the BBC, which took the opportunity of the absence of News at Ten to move its own nightly news to 10pm in 2000?
Alex Chandler, editor of the News at Ten , says the bulletin will portray the stories of the day from a human angle. For example, recent events in Kenya would have been illustrated with an eyewitness report on the consequences for people living there, as well as explaining the diplomatic context.
Sir Trevor does not underestimate the competition. "We are well aware the BBC are very, very good at what they do. In a way we've always had to compete with them, not on this programme, but we've been head to head with the BBC on a number of other things and we've always managed to get an audience ourselves.
"Competition is great, it sharpens both sides," he says. "When we came off the air, people at the BBC said how bad it was that News at Ten had moved, because you need competition to keep you on your toes. We need to feel that tension between the two. I hope viewers feel there's a choice at 10 o'clock and ultimately, they'll make the call."
He admits he was sorely disappointed how the bulletin was moved around the schedules: "There was amongst all of us here a great poignant sadness when News at Ten came to an end." But if anything, this unfortunate episode has spurred him on. "If you had left something which you thought had died and had an indecent burial and suddenly it's resurrected and you're asked to come back, wouldn't you think about it?"
Although they refuse to discuss ratings, both Sir Trevor and Etchingham are clearly prepared for a battle for viewers. "We're not in this to lose," warns Sir Trevor. "Of course you want people to watch," says Etchingham, adding, "We're not here to talk about ratings. We're just here to bring back this brand, which has this great heritage, and do it justice and get it back in the right spot."
Sir Trevor has not yet decided what his first words will be. "I'm working on it," he says, in a joking reference to what Nancy Reagan advised her decrepit husband to answer when he was presented with difficult questions.
The "And finally...", which News at Ten made famous, will be back, but this time the mantra is "fewer skateboarding ducks", in reference to a story that came to epitomise the silliness of the slot. Rather, says Chandler, the idea is to leave viewers with an uplifting thought at the end of half an hour of hard-hitting news.
The ITV News editor-in-chief, David Mannion, says: "It isn't simply a case of moving the 10.30 news back half an hour. We've been building a brand-new programme from the ground up." Mannion admits that the world of television news is a very different place from when News at Ten last enjoyed a permanent timeslot. "The new News at Ten will broadcast in a much more crowded media marketplace. It will need to do more than simply warm up the day's news," he says.
"There will be a higher premium on original journalism. We will do more to make sense of the events of the day. People will emerge with a clear picture not just of what's happened, but why, and the consequences."
While the bulletin will provide more analysis and hopefully more scoops, Mannion says: "We won't be turning News at Ten into the Open University. The programme will have pace and the enterprising journalism we have become known for."
Despite the fanfare surrounding its resurrection, the way in which ITV has gone about bringing back News at Ten is not without critics. The BBC points out that its own Ten O'Clock News is on air at the same time six nights a week, whereas the ITV bulletin only occupies the slot from Monday to Thursday, shifting to 11pm on Friday nights. The BBC is bullish about holding on to its audience – which increased from 4.6m to 4.9m last year – and is planning a revamp of all its news programmes in the spring to tie in with the reinvention of its own newsroom as a multimedia operation.
ITV is convinced that it has made the right decision this time. It was in March 1999 that the News at Ten was first moved after having been an appointment to view for 32 years. The following year, the bulletin returned to 10pm, but only for three nights a week, and in 2001 it was relaunched with Sir Trevor at the helm. In 2004, it moved to 10.30pm; the following year, Sir Trevor retired. Then, in March last year, Michael Grade confessed it had been a "shocking mistake" to move the bulletin.
At that point, the broadcaster started to think seriously about how it could restore the news to 10pm – and ultimately decided to rearrange the entire schedule to accommodate it. "We made no secret that we thought the late news was in the wrong place," says ITV's director of television, Simon Shaps. "Our conviction was the news was wrongly positioned at 10.30pm." In a world of 24-hour and online news, Shaps is convinced there is still room for the News at Ten. "It's my conviction that there continues to be a really big appetite for a fixed half-hour bulletin in the schedule," he says.
Deborah Turness, the editor of ITV News, compares the revival of News at Ten to the comeback of the Mini: "the reworking of a great British brand". That was why she insisted on keeping the bongs of Big Ben as "the beating heart" of the programme. In other respects, the programme fully embraces the 21st century. Correspondents will "vlog" – post video clips on the ITN website showing how they live and work. "Viewers want to see a little bit more of the background", says Turness. Even Sir Trevor, Etchingham and Austin will webcast regularly– at least, that is the plan. "I'm told I will be," says Sir Trevor. "I must get up to date with all these things."
The Golden Years
SIR ALASTAIR BURNET
News at Ten aired for the first time on 3 July 1967, the start of a 32-year run. Its lead presenter was Alastair Burnet, who anchored coverage of four general elections – while also editing The Economist. He handed over to Trevor McDonald in 1991.
The former ITN diplomatic correspondent was promoted to lead anchor when Burnet left to join the BBC's Panorama in 1974. He was hugely popular, partly because of a slightly slurred delivery which led to him being nicknamed 'Reginald Beaujolais'.
The first female newsreader at ITN, she became a familiar figure on 'News at Ten' between 1978-1981. She helped ITN to launch the breakfast venture TV-am, before transferring her allegiances to the BBC, after complaining that ITN had dumbed down its offering.
Yorkshire-born Scott was only 29 when she became a News at Ten presenter in 1980. Scott, at one point romantically linked with Prince Andrew, lasted on the bulletin for three years before following Ford to the BBC; she later worked at CBS in America and at Sky News.