Will the ten o’clock slot prove to be ITV network’s Achilles’ heel?

So has it all been a big mistake for ITV? Preliminary figures put ITV’s share of viewing at 29.7 per cent in the seven days up to Easter Sunday – its lowest share this year. The audience for its two evening news programmes combined was 10.4 million in the first week of the network’s new schedule and 9.2 million in the second – less than the combined share for the old News at Ten and 5.40 Early Evening News.

ITV’s response to this last point is that Trevor McDonald’s audience at teatime is larger than it was at ten, and the new 11pm bulletin was an unknown quantity which has performed better than expected.

Nevertheless, would the network have been better off leaving News at Ten where it was? Were the huge overall ratings and audience share of the new schedule’s first fortnight merely a blip – the statistical consequence of a Bond movie, Goldeneye, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? And is ITV in line for a reprimand from the regulators?

The first thing to say is that it’s early days. New schedules take time to settle down, to become familiar to the audience and to pay the expected dividends in ratings terms (just ask James Boyle, controller of Radio 4).

A second point is that the early results of ITV’s changes are affected by a quite exceptional set of circumstances. The network’s huge share at the outset (36.3 per cent in the week beginning March 14, 3.5 points higher than the average for last year) was a natural result of the torrent of hype and publicity, and the canny scheduling of Millionaire.

If ITV hadn’t achieved massive audiences across the fortnight, the network’s shareholders and advertisers would have been justified in asking for the head of David Liddiment, the director of programmes, on a plate.

Regular service might normally have been resumed in the third week. But by then, the TV schedulers had walked straight into Easter weekend, when the usual pattern of programmes is disrupted by the bank holiday and viewing habits are also affected (though not as much as at Christmas).

The nation had also just entered a war. The beneficiary here in ratings terms is likely to have been the BBC, whose news programmes traditionally do well at times of national crisis or when some big and unexpected news story blows up. BBC1’s The Nine O’Clock News got 8.2 million viewers, its highest this year, on the night Nato started bombing Serbia and Montenegro.

It’s also worth making the point that we should be wary of year-on-year comparisons. ITV’s audience share, in common with those of Channel 4 and the two main BBC channels, is highly likely to be lower than a year ago, as audiences for Channel 5 and cable, satellite and digital TV are continuing to grow, inevitably at the expense of the established channels.

But even with all the caveats, ITV must be worried about one aspect of its new schedule, and that is its performance at ten o’clock. Even during the first fortnight there were worrying signs of weakness. On Monday, Wednesday and Thursday of the week beginning March 14, ITV had high-rating drama (Kavanagh QC) and films (Goldeneye and The Specialist) running through until 10.30 or 11pm.

But on Tuesday, while Peak Practice got 10 million viewers and a 40.8 per cent share, that fell away dramatically at 10pm to just 4 million viewers and a 21.4 per cent share for Wonderful You, against True Lies on BBC1 (7.2 million/40.9 per cent) and Father Ted (2.4 million/11.5 per cent) on Channel 4.

On Friday, when Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? managed 14.5 million/55.9 per cent, Infidelity at 10pm did much less well (5 million/24.2 per cent) against Comic Relief on BBC1 (6.1 million/44.4 per cent).

Similar weak spots were evident the following week. On Wednesday, Foul Play on ITV (6.6 million/37.4 per cent) held its own against Jasper Carrott (6.2 million/25.8 per cent) on BBC1. But on Thursday, The Truth About Men (4.3 million/23.4 per cent) was thoroughly outpointed by Playing the Field (7.1 million/31.3 per cent) on BBC1, and even Horizon (3.6 million/15.9 per cent) on BBC2 did reasonably well.

On the Friday, without Millionaire, ITV’s share was right down, partly thanks to the disastrous performance of US-made sitcom Days Like These, which managed only 4 million viewers (and a 17.4 per cent share) at 8.30pm. By contrast, Mr and Mrs with Julian Clary (5.1 million/24.6 per cent) and, half an hour later, Pleasure Island (5.8 million/34.5 per cent) did rather well compared with BBC1’s Parkinson (5.9 million/27.6 per cent) at 9.30pm and the start of the film, Another 48 Hours (which started at 10.30pm and got an average 3.8 million/29.9 per cent).

Ten o’clock is an attractive slot, as a large audience is still available to view quite a long time after the watershed for grown-up comedy and drama and more risqué material. There is a tradition cultivated by Channel 4 and BBC2, especially among younger, upmarket viewers, of watching high-quality US comedy at that time of night.

But so far, ITV seems to be having difficulty capitalising on the slot’s advantages whenever it doesn’t have a strong drama or feature film to lead audiences through to 11pm. News at Ten may have been moved, only for ITV to discover that it was conveniently hiding the network’s Achilles’ heel.

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