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'News at Ten' takes a turn towards the tabloids

INDEPENDENT Television News is becoming increasingly 'tabloid', according to television viewers and media researchers who say the independent company is shifting its news priorities down market.

ITN is fighting to boost ratings for its early evening bulletins in competition with the BBC while adjusting to tighter budgets as a new independent news production company after decades of being owned by ITV corporations.

A three-week study of the news by the Independent on Sunday shows ITN emphasising crime and human interest stories and carrying fewer foreign and political stories than the BBC.

ITN also gives greater priority to sport, leading one of its bulletins, for example, on the death of racing driver Roland Ratzenberger on the day the BBC led with the first result in the South African elections.

News at Ten wins in the evening, consistently gaining 52 per cent of the combined nightly news audience. It has 7.18 million viewers, according to the most recent Broadcast/BARB figures. Trevor McDonald, the New at Ten anchorman, is the most popular presenter, 22 per cent ahead of his nearest rivals, Martyn Lewis and Michael Buerk, according to the pollster Gallup.

But ITN's 5.40pm bulletin trails some 2 million behind the BBC's 6pm audience (most recent figures 6.04 million, Broadcast/BARB). Early evening news is important to TV controllers who hope it will influence viewers' choice of channel for the rest of the evening.

An examination of ITN's output compared with the BBC news over recent weeks reveals the services are moving further apart. The most striking difference is in how they view foreign stories. In the last three weeks ITN's 5.40pm programme has carried 18 major foreign stories. The BBC, by contrast, has carried 50. Even allowing for the fact that the BBC 6pm programme is 10 minutes longer, the difference is marked. The BBC led roughly one bulletin a week with a major foreign story. So did ITN - but only if you include the return of alleged armed robber Ronnie Knight from Spain.

And despite its shorter bulletins ITN carried 25 crime stories to the BBC's 22. In the same period the BBC covered 34 major political stories to ITN's 24.

The survey echoes a study carried out by Steve Barnett, of the Henley Centre and the Broadcasting Research Unit, last September. It showed the BBC, on average, devoted more time to each story; carried twice as much foreign news as ITN; and devoted a smaller proportion of its time to the one big story of the week.

Mr Barnett said: 'Our study showed at least partial indications that news values were diverging. That process seems to be continuing, both in terms of running orders and proportion of foreign stories.'

According to ITN sources, it is no coincidence that this trend coincides with the first year of the company's new chief executive David Gordon, formerly chief executive of The Economist. His appointment a year ago came at a crucial time. TV companies were buying each other up around the country and ITN was slashing costs with a wave of redundancies.

His tenure has seen a widening of the gap in news priorities between the BBC and ITN national news as they battle for ratings. ITN increasingly concentrates on UK-based crime, human interest and health stories with foreign affairs moved down the list of priorities.

Mr Gordon is sensitive to suggestions that ITN's coverage fails to match the quality of the BBC's, pointing out that News at Ten has the highest ratings, that ITN reporters consistently come up with major exclusives and that ITN won a raft of awards last year, including two Emmys in the US.

David Mannion, ITN's editor of programmes, said he was trying to produce programmes that are both popular and of high quality: 'The question of foreign stories is quite complex. What is a foreign story? If we do one then it has to be in a way that people can relate to. Ayrton Senna's death was a foreign story, but on the day it was a very important one for our viewers. Europe - is that a foreign story? The art is remembering first of all we are playing to a British audience. They are interested in the world outside, but we have a duty to include issues relevant to people's lives.'

ITN's greatest strength lies in its rapid reactions as big stories break. One ITN insider said it left the BBC 'floundering in the dust' on the morning of John Smith's death. 'The BBC had a terrible, terrible morning. We did the story, covered it fully. By the time the BBC started to catch up we had wrapped it all up.'

The BBC's power lies in its worldwide news-gathering network, which gives it a massive advantage on foreign stories. Last week it announced it had set up a new arm, BBC Worldwide, with Pearson, the media group, to sell news and entertainment via satellite to Europe.

John Morrison, editor of the Six O'Clock News, said his audience was slightly older than the average BBC1 viewer, very loyal and vociferous. He was not worried by ITN's more accessible approach. 'I wouldn't criticise ITN. They're bloody good, particularly on the big story. But our approach is more 'broadsheet', particularly in the early evening. ITN clearly operates to a different set of news priorities. ITV is there to deliver eyeballs to the advertisers. But if that is their approach it isn't working, because we are consistently two million viewers ahead.'

Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer consumer group, said that ITN's changing priorities were influencing those at the BBC: 'I think both channels are showing a greater tendency to feature the more sensational, emotional, personal stories. There appears to be a bandwagon effect when something really horrific happens. Everyone flogs it to death and issues that have a more profound, long- term effect are given less coverage.'

(Photograph omitted)