This is the news at 10 or 9 or 8: Commercial pressure and crises of identity among broadcasters could change the face of some of Britain's most popular media institutions

BRIAN WENHAM, one of the two founding editors of News At Ten, remembers when the tape of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968 arrived at the ITN studios. An engineer spent two hours editing it with a razor blade.

That, he argues, exemplifies why the programme started at 10pm then and should be moved now. He says that when the programme was launched, in 1967, 10pm was correct for two reasons: we looked primarily to the United States for foreign news and, because of the time difference, were best served by a late evening bulletin; and primitive technology demanded as long a period as possible for editing.

The age of razor-blade editing is long gone. Mr Wenham asserts, more questionably, that we now look more to Brussels and (currently) former Yugoslavia than to the US for news.

The conversion of one of its founders to the side of those arguing that ITV's flagship news programme be moved to an earlier time, probably 6.30pm, will deepen the already low morale at Independent Television News (ITN). However, staff will have been cheered by the words of Sir David Nicholas, a former ITN editor and chairman, who produced the first News at Ten. He declared: 'I do not think I am exaggerating when I say that moving News at Ten means the end of serious commercial television.'

So what is really at stake? Staff last week, even at the highest levels, learned only from the newspapers that ITV programme schedulers had voted unanimously at a private conference to move the programme to an earlier slot.

Advertising revenue has been affected by the recession; and the ITV companies believe they would attract more if they moved News at Ten. At present, adult films and dramas, which cannot be shown before 9pm, have to begin after News at Ten and therefore not end until after midnight, or start at 9pm with a 40-minute interruption for news.

The subordination of news and current affairs to the ratings has shocked not just the news-gatherers but also the people who make the headlines. The Labour leader, John Smith, has written to Sir George Russell, chairman of the Independent Television Commission (ITC), ITV's regulatory body, expressing alarm.

He wrote: 'Were this plan to go ahead, it would be a major blow to the coverage of news and current affairs on British television. . . . Were News at Ten to be moved to 6.30, many viewers, especially in the South-east, would be left without any access to a serious news bulletin at any time during the day.

'Furthermore, it would deprive viewers of any real choice between channels. From 7.50pm, when Channel 4 News finishes, the BBC would be alone in providing effective news coverage.'

News at Ten is something of a national institution. Apart from its record of exclusive stories, it has become famous for two key features: the Big Ben chimes that introduce the headlines, and its dual presenters, the first being Alastair Burnet and Andrew Gardner.

Reggie Bosanquet, Anna Ford and Sandy Gall were other notable long-serving presenters.

Last year, News at Ten was revamped, with Trevor McDonald becoming a US-style sole anchorman.

David Glencross, chief executive of the ITC, has written to the ITV companies pointing out that their franchise applications gave a commitment to a prime-time news bulletin, and several, including the biggest, Carlton in London, said they wanted to keep News at Ten.

Nevertheless, a 6.30pm bulletin would conform to the Broadcasting Act, and the ITC may be unable to prevent the change.

ITN argues that News at Ten is a good source of advertising as it is watched by a large proportion of high-earning males. ITN staff also believe that viewers stay with films and dramas, despite the 40-minute gap, if they are good.

Many at ITN believe that if News at Ten is moved to 6.30pm, the company's reputation will suffer. People coming home after 7.15pm, when Channel 4 news has started, will have only one networked bulletin, the BBC's Nine O'Clock News. Politicians will become less interested in talking to ITN and staff less interested in joining it.

News at Ten has attracted more viewers than the Nine O'Clock News for the past year, and in the first quarter of this year had 52 per cent of the evening news audience compared with the BBC's 48 per cent. Viewing figures are influenced by the programmes directly before and after; but the latest Broadcasters' Audience Research Board figures show News at Ten with a peak of 8.8 million viewers, the Nine O'Clock News a peak of 7.08 million, and the BBC Six O'Clock News a peak of 7.2 million.

Not everyone, though, shares the view that early evening news bulletins are inferior. Mr Wenham, now a non-executive director of Carlton, says: 'Circumstances have conspired to make the earlier evening perfectly serviceable. This idea that no one gets home from work until after seven o'clock is very much a metropolitan fancy. You could equally argue that at 10 o'clock a large number of people have gone to sleep.'

Other countries certainly avoid letting news bulletins interfere with prime-time transmission. In the US, all the main networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) show their main news at 6.30pm Eastern Time; the programme is taped on the West Coast and then shown at 6.30pm their time. No station owners would allow the news to interfere with game shows.

The ITV Network Centre, which is in charge of central programme scheduling and is keen to maximise advertising revenue, will send a newsletter to advertisers tomorrow to assuage fears that they might lose the ABC audience.

The recommendation for a 'new weekday evening news pattern', it will stress, 'comes from a strategic review of the whole network schedule. The central schedulers want an earlier peak-time half-hour news and a later evening bulletin (after 10.30pm)'. This, it emphasises, will result in more evening news than before.

Research shows that between 10pm and 11pm, ITV loses its early evening lead to the BBC, and satellite TV companies increase audiences. However, the Broadcast Board (heads of programming) of the ITV companies, which unanimously accepted the recommendation to move News at Ten, does not have the final say. That will be had by the ITV council on 5 July.

Most intriguing of all will be the stance of Michael Green, chairman of Carlton and also chairman of ITN. Senior observers expect his feet to be more firmly in the Carlton than the ITN camp.

Moving News at Ten would have large repercussions for the BBC and Channel 4. The latter would have to consider whether it could keep its news magazine programme at 7pm, directly following the main ITV news. And the BBC, though extremely unlikely to move the Nine O'Clock News, where changes may also be afoot with reported plans to replace presenter Martyn Lewis, would no longer have a clear ratings winner in showing films and drama from 9.30pm onwards.

There is a final irony. While British television looks to the US and its early evening bulletin, the US is thinking of aping the News at Ten. 'I'm a great admirer of your 10 o'clock news programme,' said Bob Whelock, NBC bureau chief in London. 'There is a debate going on in the States now, and going on at a very high level, about moving our bulletin to later in the evening.'

Leader, page 22

(Photographs omitted)

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