TV starts evening ratings battle

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The Independent Online
NEWS AT TEN bowed out of the schedules last night with a nostalgic celebration of its 32 years on air as other broadcasters geared up to fight ITV for late evening viewers.

The final news programme ran an extended, six-minute festival of itself in a last "And Finally" slot. A clearly emotional Trevor McDonald had gone to work early to write his final words, thanking the programme's 7 million viewers for their patronage and attention over three decades.

A trawl through its archive was dominated by its coverage of war and disaster. The centrepiece of the footage was the Vietnam war and the image of Kim Phuc, a young girl running towards the camera, the skin hanging from her body as she fled the napalm bombing of Trang Bang in June 1972.

Another famous piece of footage was of three aircraft being blown up in the desert by Palestinian hijackers in Jordan in 1970. The producers hired an entire Air France passenger aircraft so one editor could bring the film back to London.

The oldest footage came from the programme's reports on the war in Biafra from 1967 to 1970. News At Ten broke new ground when it filmed a rebel begging for his life before being executed by Nigerian soldiers. It was the first time British television had shown a killing on screen.

The final good-bye was said by seven former News At Ten newsreaders who were spliced together from their days saying "goodnight" on screen. Arguably, the most famous of all came from Reginald Bosanquet. News At Ten always encouraged a cult of personality around its newsreaders - in strict opposition to the BBC, which in the Fifties did not even show newsreaders and, when it later did, refused to put their names on screen.

The news-free ITV evening schedule has prompted BBC schedulers to set up a strategy aimed at holding on to viewers after 9pm. ITV claimed it needed to move the news so it can run films and dramas uninterrupted after the watershed. It also wants to put on more cutting edge comedy than that available for broadcast before 9pm.

BBC1 and BBC2 will work closer together to hold viewers from ITV by getting them on to BBC2 while the BBC's Nine O'Clock News, which has about 5 million viewers, is broadcast. BBC2 will screen more populist shows at 9pm that run for half an hour. The BBC hopes that viewers will then turn from BBC2 to BBC1 rather than to ITV where its dramas or films will have been running for 30 minutes. However, the BBC must suspect that it is heading for a ratings beating and senior executives have already started making speeches about how ratings are not the main determinant of a public service broadcaster's success.

Channel 4 plans to leave ratings-chasing to ITV and BBC1, but it will focus on holding younger viewers away from ITV's films by airing its popular American shows such as Friends, ER and Frasier. Channel 5 is sticking to the strategy that is now being copied by ITV - running films uninterrupted from 9pm.

THE FIGHT FOR EVENING SCHEDULE SUPREMACY

ITV

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

NEWS: Moving News at Ten to 6.30 and rebranding it the ITV Evening News. It will retain Trevor McDonald, "and finally..." and the bongs, but will feature a colourful (lots of orange) new set.

ENTERTAINMENT: Uninterrupted films and drama from 9pm, plus the opportunity to experiment with new comedy and less mainstream drama at 10pm. So on Monday there will be an uninterrupted 90-minute episode of Kavanagh QC on Monday, followed by Goldeneye on Wednesday. There are also two new shows - the drama Wonderful You and comedy with The Grimleys.

WILL IT

WORK?

Is Gordon Ramsay known to raise his voice on occasions? In a word, yes. ITV only just missed out on its target of a 38 per cent share of peak time viewing last year and should have little difficulty in passing that next week (in fact, its target for this year is 39 per cent, rising to 40 per cent in 2000). The only exceptions are likely to be when BBC1 screens Arnold Schwarzenegger's True Lies on Tuesday and Comic Relief on Friday.

BBC

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

NEWS:Six O'Clock news will be relaunched on 10 May with a new regular presenter Huw Edwards and a new virtual set. Small dedicated team of correspondents will tell viewers "why it matters".

ENTERTAINMENT: A joint strategy by BBC 1 and 2 to bring back viewers to the main channel at 9.30pm. BBC2 to schedule more populist programming like The Fast Show at 9pm to compete with continuous drama and films on ITV. High profile cross promotion will encourage viewers to switch back to BBC1 at 9.30 when BBC will look to run shows like Dinnerladies and Neighbours at War.

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

Even before the shift in News at Ten, BBC1 had seen its share fall below the psychology barrier of 30 per cent. With ITV stripping Who Wants to Be a Millionaire across the week and premiering Goldeneye, the BBC is sure to take a ratings kicking. But ITV will not be able to do that every week. Significantly, BBC executives are already being deployed far and wide to repeat the mantra of size isn't everything.

CHANNEL 4

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

NEWS: Fresh from another revamp. The colourful ties sported by anchor Jon Snow still make a splash but in danger of being upstaged by a bright set not wholly dissimilar to Channel 5's.

ENTERTAINMENT: Brookside will remain its midweek peak time linchpin, but otherwise it will leave crowd pulling to the big boys. It will concentrate on being distinctive rather than derivative. ER, Sex and the City and Queer as Folk were obvious attempts to build loyalty prior to ITV's changes. Younger focus at 10pm to continue with shows like South Park, and Ibiza Uncovered.

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

Channel 4 will never be judged by audience share alone. Michael Jackson would naturally be alarmed if there was a drastic reduction in ratings, but his current preoccupation is to find badge programmes that will make the network look distinctive, daring and innovative. Monica - The Interview pulled in more than 3m viewers but look at the attention it received.

CHANNEL 5

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

NEWS: Moving its bulletin for the second time since its launch - then from 8.30pm to 7pm, now from 7pm to 6pm. Featues colour coded news areas (orange for sport) and Kirsty Young on walkabout.

ENTERTAINMENT: C5 director of programmes Dawn Airey is looking at ways to bolster its traditionally weak 8-9pm slot and hold on to audience after 1pm, an objective so far achieved by recourse to soft-porn. Otherwise, it will stick with uninterrupted films from 9pm (Arnie's Running Man next week and Independence Day later in the year) and occasional exclusive sports coverage.

WHAT ARE

THEY DOING

By the end of 1998 (its first full calendar year on air), Channel 5 had doubled it audience share to 4.3 per cent. Maintaining that sort of momentum in the face of ITV's rampant populism will prove a real - and in all likelihood impossible - challenge. By shifting the news to 6.30 pm, ITV has at a stroke deprived Channel 5 of its unique selling point at launch - that it ran films uninterrupted by the news.

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