ITV has three weeks to prepare the viewing public for one of its biggest changes in 30 years.
On Monday, March 8, the channel launches its first schedule without News at Ten, which will be replaced by news bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm.
Since 1967, News at Ten has been a beacon in ITV’s peaktime schedule. But in recent years this flagship news programme has more closely resembled a millstone around the channel’s neck, with more than a quarter of viewers reaching for the remote control at the sound of Big Ben’s chimes.
ITV’s arguments for scrapping News at Ten have been well-documented. But now that permission to ditch it has finally been granted, how will the channel break the nation’s viewing habits and keep millions tuned in, not just post-10pm but across the whole evening?
Last week, the first steps in re-educating the public were taken with the launch of on-air teasers promising “TV Gets Better”.
ITV commercial and marketing director John Hardie says: “We have to explain that this is about 9pm or even 8.30pm viewing getting better, not just 10pm.”
One set of promotions will have the message “What’s New at Ten” and will concentrate on advertising the modern dramas, risquÃ© comedies and provocative documentaries that ITV is to schedule at this time.
In particular, light viewers and ABC1s must be made aware of how the move of News at Ten will show programming aimed at them. “It’s about getting it across to a younger, smarter audience, the real quality on at 10pm,” says Hardie. It is possible this will mean using posters or press advertising to reach coveted viewers such as the ever-elusive young upmarket male.
This is ITV’s chance to win back some of the young audiences that are used to flicking to other channels at 10pm – notably Channel 4, which has aggressively scheduled against News at Ten with US imported comedies such as Sex and the City and Frasier.
Andy Pearch, managing director of The Billett Consultancy, comments: “ITV’s revenue loss in the past few years has come principally from youth advertisers and they pay a premium compared with ITV’s stable of core advertisers. Moving
News at Ten is not just about improving audience, it’s about improving ITV’s yield from a different audience profile.”
Another promotional strand will use the line “A Better Night In”, and aim to show the mass audience how the demise of News at Ten gives ITV the freedom to show feature-length dramas and uninterrupted films, with bankers such as Kavanagh QC, Peak Practice and the James Bond film Golden Eye expected to be among the first to occupy slots in the new schedule.
ITV’s third promotion will use the hugely popular news presenter Trevor McDonald, who will front the channel’s 6.30pm flagship show, the ITV Evening News, and fellow news anchor Dermot Murnaghan, who will read the 11pm ITV Nightly News, with the sole object of explaining the time changes. “People must know when the news is going to be,” says Hardie.
The BBC, which despite its recent fall in audience share has been a thorn in ITV’s side with its beefed-up marketing and competitive scheduling, is preparing to hit back with a promotion for its own news output.
BBC Broadcast director of marketing and communications Sue Farr says: “We are looking at the situation very hard and will be keen to exploit any opportunities.”
It is highly probable that the BBC will capitalise on the drift of sections of the News at Ten audience to the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News with on-air trails focusing on its position as the country’s leading bulletin left in peaktime. Another approach being considered is a campaign reminding viewers how many news points the multimedia BBC has to offer, such as BBC2’s Newsnight, Radio 4’s Today programme and the 24-hour digital TV news service BBC News 24.
ITV will be at its most vulnerable to scheduling spoiler tactics in the first few weeks following the upheaval. BBC1 is expected to roll out quality programmes and specials at 9.30pm to maintain its grip on the larger number of viewers expected to watch the Nine O’Clock News.
The counter-argument is that ITV has greater flexibility to use the 9pm slot to keep the flow of audience until at least 11pm. But as Steve Williams, head of TV at BMP OMD, comments: “ITV has not got sufficient calibre of movie deals, unlike for example Channel 5, to rely solely on films.” He emphasises the importance of drama, where ITV has shown it can hurt BBC1.
ITV also has the highly successful quiz Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a hand-grenade of a show that can be lobbed into the schedule at about 8pm to great effect. The quiz show also gives ITV an excellent lead-in to unestablished new series being piloted at 8.30pm.
Whatever happens in the weeks leading up to the move of News at Ten and the first few weeks of the new schedule, the fundamental test is a long-term one, when ITV must prove the strength in depth of its peaktime schedule.
As Jim Marshall, chief executive of MediaVest, says: “Forget what happens in the first week and the second week. If the industry’s sensible, it will give ITV time to get it right. Better to get a strong solution than a quick fix and then more difficulties in three to six months’ time.”