John Hardie: ITN chief gives his take on the BBC and explains why TV news is here to stay

His defence of the format comes amid evidence that news-watching is changing

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The Independent Online

Some breaking news from the chief executive of ITN: the TV news bulletin is here to stay.

Not much of a headline you might think, given it comes from the news provider to ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5, but John Hardie’s strident defence comes as evidence that news-watching, like everything else in the digital world,  is changing.

A recent report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Oxford University found that in the US only 31 per cent of under-45s now watch a scheduled TV bulletin every week compared with 42 per cent two years ago. In the UK, the fall is from  56 per cent to 46 per cent.

Mr Hardie, 53, would  prefer to accentuate what hasn’t changed rather than what has.

“Actually, when you look at the longer-term trend I think that about 88 per cent of all viewing of TV news is to traditional bulletins across the broadcasters,” he says, leaning back on a swivel chair in his office.

“So even with now 17 years of availability of Sky News, BBC News and all the other channels… the vast majority of viewing of TV news is to scheduled bulletins. That is counterintuitive in itself because people think surely if the news is on all day I’ll just catch up with it whenever I want to.”

If the provision of broadcast news isn’t changing so much, its appearance does from time to time. News at Ten, whose ratings have long lagged behind the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News, is bringing in Tom Bradby in place of Mark Austin and Julie Etchingham to helm the bulletin this autumn.

“In my experience there is never a better time to look for a change than from strength,” says Mr Hardie, who is also ITN’s editor-in-chief.

The decision came from wanting to make it “even more a programme of record, based on political analysis, political interviews and major matters of the day” and “not as narrowly focused at all about the younger demographic because of Tom being younger (than Austin). It is about the nature of the programme we want to make”.

The bigger changes that have taken place on his watch have been behind the camera. The home to Jon Snow and Alistair Stewart made a loss in 2009, the year he arrived. It won back the Channel 5 contract from Sky and is on a firmer footing as it prepares to celebrate its 60th anniversary later this month.

News gathering is not cheap. ITN employs more than  400 journalists, 300 regular freelancers and operates  eight foreign bureaux. Its shareholders, including the largest, ITV, have little hope of a dividend and its pension deficit keeps rising, but growing revenues and an operating profit close to £6m show it is in improving health. Turnover of £112m last year should touch £120m this year, thanks to an expanding production arm. ITN has just begun a three-year deal with the Football League to produce edited highlights of 1,800 games a season. Before that, it had moved into current affairs and documentaries – including The Agenda for ITV and Channel 4’s Dispatches – but also commercials and conference videos.

That expansion colours  Mr Hardie’s view of the BBC, whose future is being pored over in a variety of consultations leading up to charter renewal next year. First of all, a boast: “In ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 news there is vastly greater variety of editorial voice than you see in the totality of the BBC,” he says. “Its journalism tends to speak with one voice regardless of the outlet. They may disagree – and Newsnight is probably a different sort of programme from the Six O’Clock News – but by and large it is the BBC. What I think most people would be surprised to know is that you come to one place and those three services are all made by the same company.”

But he is reluctant to call for the corporation to be reined in, even though he calculates the BBC’s online budget is more than the total combined of his main three clients.

“Do I think that a 10 per cent reduction in that would be a good thing? For the public, I don’t know why particularly. For me as a business, I don’t know why particularly. What I would love to see is the BBC opened up even more and the ability for outside companies to pitch and win contracts.”

By that, he means current affairs and documentaries, a stronghold of in-house production with the honourable exception of Question Time. As the BBC’s production arm has designs on making programmes for other broadcasters, putting it in competition with ITN, Mr Hardie would like to see the amount of guaranteed, in-house work it gets reduced.

“We would love them to spend more of their money externally in the UK. We would love there to be more opportunity to pitch and win even more BBC business.”

Born in Glasgow, he’s still got the burr. After graduating from Glasgow Univesity, he joined Procter & Gamble. Over 14 years, he scaled the grocery giant, marketing soap powder and Fairy Liquid before taking oversight of brands including Oil of Olay and Old Spice.

His move to the ITV network in 1997 involved brands too, although there were fewer when he had finished. One of Mr Hardie’s tasks was to phase out the regional labels such as Yorkshire and Granada in favour of the ITV brand.

He puts any dip in young people watching TV news down to the “Red Bull effect”.

“Consider the “23-year old drinking Red Bull and vodka, staying up all night to get lucky. When they are 33 they are getting up all night with their children and therefore they are watching much more TV in their living room. That is just a natural demographic that has always existed,” he says.

John Hardie: The CV

Education: Colston Secondary Comprehensive and Glasgow University  (MA English and Philosophy)

Career: Joined Procter & Gamble in 1983, rising to managing director by 1994. Marketing and commercial director of the ITV network in 1997, executive vice president of Walt Disney Television EMEA from 2001. Became ITN chief executive in 2009

Personal: Married with two sons. Gets up at 4.30am to catch the train into London from north Oxfordshire but also has a flat in the capital

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