BBC and ITV fight on in News at Ten ratings war

ITV’s main evening news is back at 10pm, a move that has triggered a ratings war with the BBC for dominance of nightly viewing figures.

The national institution that was the ITV News at Ten ended two years ago this week. It was replaced with a weekday 11pm news, with ITV aiming to attract bigger audiences by scheduling uninterrupted films and drama across late peak and into ten o’clock.

In 1998 ITV’s peak share had fallen to 37.5 per cent and with the new peak schedule in place, dropped to under 36 per cent in autumn 2000.

Last September the ITC agreed with ITV that it would move the 11pm Nightly News back to 10pm between Mondays and Thursdays, with the concession that ITV had the flexibility to slot the news no later than 11.15pm on no more than 52 occasions a year.

This meant that both the BBC and ITV’s main evening bulletins would be shown, for the first time, at the same time three to four nights a week.

With a potential audience of over 10 million, the first night of ITV’s new News at Ten used innovative scheduling to maximise its audience. By removing end breaks of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? and other programmes, such as the successful At Home With The Braithwaites, the audience stayed with ITV into the news.

Undoubtedly aided by these inherited viewers, ITV nearly doubled BBC1’s audience on the first night, with audience figures of 8 million viewers versus the BBC’s 4.3 million, giving ITV a 36 per cent share.

Of the 11 occasions in the first four weeks when both late news broadcasts went head to head, ITV dispensed with end breaks of preceding programmes on eight evenings.

However, from mid-February BBC1 had recovered to beat ITV’s news on the majority of nights. A particularly news-heavy period this week, including the Selby rail crash and the foot and mouth outbreak, has seen the BBC1 take a near ten per cent lead at 10.15pm over ITV.

Traditionally BBC news is the more popular choice when major news stories occur, which appears still to be the case. ITV’s new target of beating BBC1 in peak hours by seven share points is being achieved with ease. ITV is about 12 per cent higher in the ratings so far this year with a 39 per cent peak share, in part thanks to continued runs of the popular Millionaire and the hugely successful Popstars.

It is probably too early to declare a clear winner of the Ten O’clock News war, with indications that the battle is being fought and won on the strength of 9pm programming, clever tactical scheduling and break patterns.

With forthcoming “events” this year to include, in the summer, ITV’s Survivor series, Coronation Street likely to go to six days a week and a rumoured fourth weekly Eastenders in the autumn, the peak battle between the main terrestrial channels can only intensify.

Jennifer Palmer is strategy and analysis manager at Starcom Motive

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