Is the media obsessed with the media? The past few days may have convinced you so. Yet it would be hard to argue against the importance of the stories that have been covering acres of news print and hours of airtime.
News of the BSkyB takeover bid for Manchester United, which occupied my Sunday and Monday, followed hard on the heels of the sudden death of Lord Rothermere and the leaks – later confirmed – that ITV really did want to move/scrap News at Ten in favour of bulletins at 6.30pm and 11.00pm.
For newspapers, the death of Lord Rothermere so soon after that of Sir David English means the twin architects of the Mail group’s remarkable ascendancy have both passed on before the succession has been secured. Fortunately for Associated Newspapers, the group is in such strong form that this will not prove an immediate problem – though the announcement of Channel One’s closure, the following day, served as a reminder that Rothermere and English never fulfilled their television ambitions.
Of many questions raised by the BSkyB-United deal, perhaps the most intriguing is what it will mean for football coverage on Sky Sports and in the Murdoch newspapers.
For as the News at Ten story shows, the tabloids are now regarded – not least by the Government – as barometers of the public mood on issues such as TV and sport. But they are barometers that can be manipulated, or “spun”.
When the Mirror reported last week that Trevor McDonald was outraged at ITV’s plans to move News at Ten (“BONG! Trevor lashes News at Ten switch. BONG! He says movie excuse is ‘rubbish’.”), I assumed he hadn’t been told he was to be the proud 2.5m presenter not merely of the new News at 6.30pm but ITV’s new flagship current affairs programme too. Add in the third “BONG!” – “Blair’s fears for threatened show” – and it seemed ITV had something of a presentation problem.
By the following morning the Mirror’s readers had “delivered a resounding ‘no’ to ITV plans to axe News at Ten for films and drama”.
Bad news for ITV, it seemed, particularly as the public was to be consulted by the Independent Television Commission before a final decision was taken.
But ITV’s chief executive Richard Eyre is no slouch in the presentation stakes. And by now Trevor had apparently had a change of heart: “I’M IN FAVOUR OF DROPPING NEWS AT TEN. EXCLUSIVE: Trevor McDonald gives the real story to the Sun”.
It turned out the Mirror had taken his comments ‘out of context’. He told the Sun: “My understanding is that they (ITV) intend to use the time for current affairs programmes, high-class drama, for documentaries and so on… The move has my complete support.”
So with the nation’s top tabloids divided, what answer will the ITC get from the great British public when its two-month consultation is ended? Right or bong? It partly depends how many people bother to read ITV’s skilfully worded document, spelling out its schedule changes and the reasons for them.
As those in the advertising business are aware, the changes involve more than just News at Ten. The entire evening schedule has been under scrutiny, with the new ITV Network team making clear nothing was sacred. ITV in peaktime should look and feel quite different if the changes get the go-ahead.
Under the plans, Home and Away will move to 5.05pm in all ITV regions, making room for regional programmes (including regional news magazines) from 5.30pm to 6.30pm. At 6.30pm – which ITV says is “a time when research shows most people would choose to watch the news” – is the new flagship news programme.
It’s not yet clear what programmes will run from 7pm to 9pm (as ITV points out, programme proposals are commercially sensitive), except that Coronation Street remains at 7.30pm. But ITV claims viewers will be better informed and better entertained, with a richer and more varied mix of programmes at peak viewing times.
Nine o’clock is the key slot. With the dropping of the News at Ten, says the document, “post-watershed films and feature-length dramas can start at 9pm (or later) and run without interruption.” But ITV insists it won’t just be used for films and dramas. “With more programme time available in the post-watershed period, it will be possible to experiment with new ideas and new talent in a much more flexible way” it says.
And with the 10-11pm slot freed, that flexibility and creative freedom becomes greater still. While BBC1, BBC2 and Channel 4 (not to mention cable and satellite channels) have been making hay at 10pm, with comedies, quizzes and edgier dramas, ITV has been stuck with the news.
One of Eyre’s most dramatic statistics is that in the first five months of this year ITV’s 10pm audience dropped by no less than 27 per cent. That is a terrifying figure.
Not that it is abandoning factual programmes at 10pm. Its new “60 minutes” current affairs show is due to play at 10pm, and so is its new documentaries strand. Films, comedy and drama will play on the other nights.
Eyre insists the 11pm news bulletin will be high quality, giving full coverage of parliamentary votes and wrapping up the day’s news before people go to bed. (MPs may even be home in time to watch it – unlike News at Ten!)
Will that be enough to persuade the ITC, MPs and the public the move is a good one? Quite possibly. Research shows more viewers complain about films being interrupted than almost anything else.