No News is not always good news

These are uncertain times at ITV. Since the country’s biggest commercial channel axed News at Ten, its average peaktime share this year has actually been lower.

Before the flagship bulletin disappeared on March 7, ITV’s peak- time share since the beginning of the year averaged 40.6 per cent.

But for the period from March 8 to May 16, peaktime share of viewing is down to 39.4 per cent for 7pm to 10.30pm, an average so far this year of 40 per cent.

Since the launch of the new-look schedule, ITV’s performance has been strikingly inconsistent, with some huge programme hits but some equally disappointing misses. Its weekly peaktime shares have see-sawed from lows of about 35 per cent to highs of over 47 per cent. As one media buyer says: “ITV’s share has been up and down like the proverbial tart’s drawers.”

Wednesday night Champions League football, TV “events” such as The Soap Awards and quality drama, so often ITV’s trump card, have performed well without the disruption of News at Ten. But some of the new shows at 10pm have failed to attract audiences, with one or two series such as Mr and Mrs with Julian Clary being savaged by the critics.

And now utility giant PowerGen is reviewing its £3m weather sponsorship. Some reports suggest it will ditch its ten-year deal because of a dip in audience figures.

According to analysis from Initiative Media, comparing the combined audience figures for ITV’s original news programmes scheduled at 5.40pm and 10pm, to the audiences for the channel’s new-look bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm in March and April, there has been a steady loss of news viewers – an attractive ABC1 audience.

ITV has lost 1.25 million news viewers since February, while BBC1’s news programmes have gained 1 million viewers.

With hindsight there probably could not have been a worse time tactically speaking to get rid of News at Ten. The war in Kosovo, the murder of Jill Dando, the three London nail bombings – have made news compulsive viewing. In the week of April 26, when Dando was shot dead, the BBC1 recorded a total news audience of 14.7 million, up 22 per cent on the previous week, while ITV attracted 9.6 million viewers, up nine per cent on the previous week.

Ilker Shakir, TV buying director of Initiative Media, says: “After an encouraging start not only to the year but to the post-News at Ten schedule, there has been a falling off in ITV’s peak segment where the BBC has remained relatively stable.”

So has the News at Ten move – an unwelcome development for many ordinary viewers as well as Tony Blair and culture secretary Chris Smith – been a mistake?

Already there have been calls for a reinstatement of News at Ten, with an article in The Sunday Times quoting leading figures such as Sir David Nicholas, the former editor-in-chief and chairman of ITN, criticising the decision to move the flagship bulletin.

But ITV argues that comparing the performance of its schedule when it had News at Ten in the winter months of January and February to the period since News at Ten disappeared from March onwards is not comparing like with like.

As summer approaches and the evenings get lighter and warmer, TV audiences start to dip. The ITV spring and summer schedule is traditionally weaker compared with the autumn and winter when the big production TV shows, which tend to attract big audiences, are screened.

An ITV spokeswoman also points out that audiences for the former News at Ten slot are slightly up since the bulletin was axed, compared with the same period last year – up to an average of 6.3 million viewers and a 29.8 share compared with 6.1 million viewers and a 29.5 per cent share.

And looking at the performance of peaktime on a year-on-year basis, ITV has attracted more viewers every month so far.

John Hardie, marketing and commercial director of ITV, says: “To our knowledge, nowhere in the world has the leading network grown during a period of expansion in multichannel television. We are proud that 20 weeks into 1999, ITV is not only achieving its goal of a 39 per cent share of the audience in peaktime but – at 40 per cent – is exceeding it.”

Ian Lewis, broadcast director at Zenith Media, says: “The News at Ten was there for 30 years. Everyone knew it was there.

“Viewers need time to realise that there are new programmes on at that time. ITV needs a couple of hits between 10pm and 10.30pm to bring people in each and every week,” he adds.

He predicts ITV’s season of Bond films, where every 007 movie is being shown in chronological order starting with Dr No last week, will help keep the channel’s performance over the lean summer months close to its peaktime target of 39 per cent, until TV viewing picks up in the autumn.

So far the News at Ten move has not delivered much growth, but as a recent analysis from MediaVest argues, it is difficult to criticise the move as ITV’s overall performance has improved in peaktime and overall compared with a year ago.

As a MediaVest recent report concludes: “Next year’s comparisons will be made on a like-for-like non-News at Ten basis and it is really only then that the effect of a better or worse ITV will be seen, as the public vote with their remotes.”

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