Yesterday's news today: Barry Cox says that ITV has to be allowed to change with the times

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THE ITV companies took a hammering last week over the proposal to move News at Ten to 6.30pm or 7pm. An extraordinary coalition - politicians, including John Major and John Smith; the regulators of the Independent Television Commission; and a rusty collection of old-guard television grandees, such as Sir Robin Day and Sir David Nicholas - combined with such vehemence you would have thought the proposal was to run the Massacre of the Innocents live from Jerusalem.

Clearly, ITV's News will be at Ten for a while yet. But we can expect many similar controversies over the next few years. The conjunction of rapid technological change, providing greater viewer choice; increasing commercial competition between ITV, BSkyB and Channel 4 (very different from the non-commercial rivalry between the BBC and the old ITV); and the consequences of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, all mean that ITV has to change to survive.

We can change positively, trying to anticipate the effects of increased competition, or under crisis, by which time some companies may have gone under. Like any sensible businesses, we would prefer to take action now, not wait supinely for the crash.

The American experience offers a salutary warning of what can happen to traditional television networks if they fail to adapt to new competitors in time. In the 1980s the three US networks lost nearly a third of their audiences to the emerging cable channels. Now several of those cable channels are highly profitable, much more so than CBS or NBC. ITV would like to do a better job in facing up to competition.

Ironically, the Government's 1988 White Paper foresaw all this, and drew some sensible conclusions. 'As viewers exercise greater choice there is no longer the same need for quality of service to be prescribed by legislation or regulatory fiat . . . when there are 10 or more channels within the reach of the average viewer he and she can increasingly sort this out for themselves provided that the choice before them is sufficiently varied . . . the Government believes the time is now right to make major changes to the regime for what might henceforth be called Channel 3 . . .'

However, under a barrage of criticism rather similar in tone to that which descended on ITV last week - and thanks to Margaret Thatcher's weakening grip on power as the legislation progressed - the Act retreated from this clarity of vision and purpose. ITV ended up with a dog's dinner of conflicting commercial and public service aspirations, few of which are imposed on its commercial competitors.

Fine. We all understood that when we bid. One of the requirements was a high-quality national news in peak time. The ITC decided this was between 6pm and 10.30pm, resisting ITV's suggestion that peak time be extended to 11pm. It did so to prevent News at Ten from becoming News at Ten-thirty. The winning applicants therefore put in differing proposals for weekday peak-time news. Only a minority had specified a 10pm news for the longer term.

The commercial case for moving News at Ten is straightforward. A Channel 4 selling its own airtime competitively against ITV for the first time rightly sees it as a soft target. By playing entertainment programmes at 10pm aimed at the younger ABC1 audience, it is attracting a significant number of viewers away from ITV, leaving the News at Ten audience smaller, older and more downmarket. The impact on ITV revenues is already evident; it will get worse, since Channel 4 will be able to negotiate higher prices from advertisers based on its current success.

ITV is a largely fixed-cost industry, paying some pounds 350m a year to the Government. For companies that bid high for their licences, a comparatively small loss of revenue could mean the difference between profit and loss. This is not a complaint; we all bid what we bid. But preventing ITV from taking legitimate action is unreasonable, to say the least.

Companies facing losses could be left with only one option - cut spending on programmes. This could lead to further loss of audience share, and a downward spiral of cost-cutting and audience loss. It would precipitate the decline in original British television production signalled in the Booz Allen report, commissioned by the then Independent Broadcasting Authority.

The ITC says it is 'too early' to move News at Ten as a response. This reflects a wish that the new world will arrive later rather than sooner; it is not based on the realities affecting ITV.

But at least in questioning the recommendation the ITC is doing its job; the reaction of MPs and ministers is altogether more suspect.

Is covering the votes at Westminster live on one particular television channel really a vital prop for democracy? If it is, it surely ought to be the responsibility of the BBC, not of a commercial channel. Or is it vital only to the MPs themselves?

In the 1990 Act, Parliament required ITV to carry a quality national news in peak time; equally rightly, it did not say News at Ten had to be preserved for eternity. Most MPs seem to have forgotten their deliberations on the subject three years ago. In fact, most Conservative MPs seem to have forgotten that they voted for the now widely discredited Act at all.

The Prime Minister, John Smith, Sir Robin Day and Uncle Tom Cobley want to have yesterday again. Wouldn't we all, particularly ITV? Unfortunately, yesterday is unlikely to be available today - and certainly won't be tomorrow.

The writer is director of corporate affairs at London Weekend Television

(Photograph omitted)