Do you suppose Granada’s Charles Allen is regretting ITV’s about-turn on News at Ten? The last-minute compromise with the Independent Television Commission – which he brokered, as ITV’s new Mr Big – may have kept the two sides out of the law courts and put a large spoke in Greg Dyke’s plans to grab the ten o’clock slot for the BBC’s news. But it gave an impression of weakness just at a time when Granada Media’s honeymoon with the City came to an end.
The decision to put ITV’s news back at ten was one of the most remarkable changes of heart since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor decided to give their marriage another go. Along with forecasts of lower advertising revenue, it focused City minds on ITV’s shrinking audience share, hazy strategic thinking and continuing lack of a chief executive.
Until the last moment, ITV was adamant it would not move the 11 O’clock Nightly News to an earlier slot. It had been granted a judicial review to challenge the ITC’s order that it should do so. It had seven years’ argument and evidence to support its belief that ten o’clock was the wrong time for an ITV news bulletin.
Even after Allen offered his olive branch to the ITC at the Edinburgh Television Festival, few predicted ITV would revert to ten o’clock. It hadn’t even been prepared to move to 10.30 and – with the main evening bulletin remaining at 6.30 – a ten o’clock slot would mean two news bulletins during peak time.
On the night Dyke announced that the BBC’s Nine O’clock News would switch to ten, Michael Grade suggested ITV should immediately snatch the slot back. But he was not proposing the bulletin should be a moveable feast, popping up at ten o’clock on three nights a week and some time later on the other four.
Even more remarkable was the ITC’s approval, and the other sweetener for the deal. It has granted an extra 2.5 minutes of peak time advertising each day, not just for ITV but Channel 4 and Channel 5 as well, giving advertisers 7.5 more peaktime minutes a day.
Ironically, this so-called “imaginative solution” was announced on the day another regulator overseen by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport lost a judicial review. Had ITV taken the ITC to court, it might have won a famous victory – hard on the heels of Camelot’s over the Lottery Commission.
ITV’s problem was that the law is something of a lottery. It might have lost, and then it wouldn’t have gained the real concessions of scheduling flexibility and extra advertising. Its lawyers were convinced it had a strong case – but the ITC has never lost a judicial review.
I must declare an interest here. After the excitement of the Camelot case, I was looking forward to covering another judicial review. Were we about to witness a double whammy against the forces of authority? With the Lottery Commission’s lapses so fresh in everyone’s mind, might the infallibility of regulators be seen as a thing of the past?
The ITC took its decision before the Camelot result, but in a month that saw many unbelievable things before breakfast – including a fuel shortage and the re-emergence of the Tory party as a contender for government – no wonder it was unwilling to try its luck.
But ITV must now try to make its new schedule work. One man’s flexibility is another man’s broken viewing habits – and in an age in which the new channels are built on rigorous streaming and stranding, with the same programmes on at the same times every night, a schedule without its fixed points can quickly seem rootless.
Flexibility can be made to work, as ITV has shown with its Champions’ League football and Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, which have popped up at different times, on different days and at different lengths with great success. Big Brother has also proven the point for Channel 4. But these programmes are strong brands with a loyal following who will find them wherever they are.
The ITV news is no longer a strong brand. It is not even clear what the new moveable bulletin will be called. Newspapers have been referring to it as News at Ten and assuming it will feature Trevor McDonald and the bongs, but ITV’s director of programmes, David Liddiment, is adamant it will still be called the ITV Nightly News.
It will not, of course, be as long as the old News at Ten because the main ITV bulletin will remain at 6.30 – and it remains to be seen if it lasts the promised 20 minutes. The current Nightly News seems to start at 11.04 and to have reached the newspaper review by 11.15.
ITV’s other problem is that ten o’clock remains a fiercely competitive slot, which is one reason it moved the news in the first place.
It pointed out then that 37 per cent of 16- to 34-year-olds switched away from ITV at ten o’clock – along with many other older viewers. Will it be any better now?
Its hope must be that on the days it runs the news later, with uninterrupted films, longer dramas and sport, it will more than make up for its audience loss on other days – and that the extra ads in Coronation Street, Millionaire and other banker programmes will more than make up for the income loss.
But when you’ve been saying one thing for seven years and you suddenly do the opposite, it’s not surprising the City looks sceptical.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News