ITC shift on News at Ten gives Eyre a break from advertisers

The old guard at ITN are inconsolable at the loss of News at Ten – though it’s worth observing that many of their younger colleagues wonder what all the fuss is about.

But the rest of us ought to look on the bright side – in one respect at least, it’s good news. The Independent Television Commission’s decision last week means we won’t have to listen to advertisers and their agencies telling ITV how to run its business.

The new management at ITV has set out not only to destroy the odd shibboleth, like News at Ten, but to achieve a 38 per cent share of peak viewing.

This year it’ll fail, according to the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising – as pointed out recently in Marketing Week (MW November 5), it needs a fourth-quarter share of 39 per cent, following previous shares of 38.2 per cent, 37.7 per cent and 37.1 per cent. With the BBC-takes-all phenomenon of Christmas week looming, such a share looks impossible.

One of the consequences of failure could have been a renewed outburst of moaning from the advertising community, with more calls for greater investment. But as it happens, ITV may yet have more money to invest in programmes. By the time you read this, the ITC should have made another significant announcement about the network’s future. It’s expected to cut the amount the companies have to pay the Treasury for their licences by about 100m a year.

ITV can also head off advertisers’ complaints at its failure to achieve its target with a plea for time for its new schedule with news bulletins at 6.30pm and 11pm and a raft of new programmes between 9pm and 11pm to settle down and deliver the bigger share.

The advertisers are, of course, delighted and the IPA welcomed the greater scheduling flexibility it offered ITV. What no-one knows, however, is whether the network will be able to use that greater flexibility to advantage – and whether its assurances to its regulator and the Commons Culture Committee that the rescheduled news programmes will deliver the same audience will hold water.

Common sense, for instance, suggests that there may be a decline in AB viewing of ITV’s news. Will you be at home to watch the flagship 6.30pm bulletin? Will you want to watch a 20-minute bulletin at 11pm rather than something lighter? Will you resolve to get your main evening news fix from the BBC at 9pm in future?

The bold assertions of Richard Eyre and David Liddiment that the new schedule will deliver, that it is in everyone’s best interests, including viewers’ and advertisers’, remain just that – assertions. The ITC, for one, recognised this when it said it was giving ITV “the opportunity to put its plans to the test”.

Meanwhile, on the same day the ITC met to discuss News at Ten – one of Britain’s two most popular television news programmes – the BBC’s Board of Governors met to discuss the other. Specifically whether the BBC in Scotland should be allowed to opt out of the UK-wide Six O’Clock News on BBC 1, and replace it with a programme combining its lead stories with those from the regional programme, Reporting Scotland.

The Governors issued a statement suggesting they were minded to reject the idea. They acknowledged the demand in Scotland, fuelled by devolution, for a separate programme, but they thought the BBC should keep in step with the pace of constitutional change, not run ahead of it. They suggested a revamped Six O’Clock News as part of a “News Hour” between six and seven, with more news from around the UK and tighter integration of the regional news programmes.

One of the BBC’s advisers in Scotland promptly resigned and even a spokesman for the Scottish Tories, such staunch defenders of the Union, said he thought the governors might have been bolder.

North of the border it’s hard to find any member of the chattering classes who doesn’t think devolution requires a bold gesture from the broadcasters, especially the publicly-funded BBC, and that a “Scottish Six” would have sent the right signals.

In London, things look very different – which in itself rather reinforces the arguments for a separate news programme delivered from a Scottish perspective.

I suppose the BBC’s governors might yet rethink. If they did, it would raise the question of whether ITV in Scotland should follow suit and opt out of the new ITV news at 6.30pm, even before it begins.

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