A year in TV news

Although it hasn’t been a vintage year for hard news, 2004 has seen some serious competition between the main TV news organisations – Sky, ITN and the BBC.

It’s not really about ratings – schedulers have more control over that than editors – it’s more about who beat who on the bigger stories of the year and also, increasingly, about poaching key talent from rivals and even poaching business too.

In 2004, ITN became more aggressive, the BBC became more serious and Sky nicked a contract off ITN and fought hard to maintain its market leadership in 24-hour news.

Competition is obviously good for news -it raises standards and generally makes everyone try harder.

I was wondering if that intense competition would be in evidence last week at the Battle of the News Channels – a charity quiz hosted by Alastair Campbell featuring star teams from the three big news organisations.

In the event, it was a boisterous and largely good-natured contest and, thanks to the rampant bias of the host and the incompetent scoring of his sidekick, Edwina Currie, the result was pretty notional.

For the record, the BBC came first, with Sky just behind and ITN a rather poor third.

In the real world I think ITV News probably edged it in 2004, although its News Channel still looks very exposed sometimes. It’s been a tricky year all round for TV news.

The BBC is still suffering slightly from PHUSS (Post-Hutton Stress Syndrome). The new emphasis on journalistic probity and specialist knowledge has left some programmes feeling rather dry and characterless.

On the plus side, Paul Wood’s outstanding coverage of the invasion of Fallujah was an exceptionally courageous piece of enterprise journalism which trounced the opposition.

C4 News has also shone overseas – not least at the Emmy Awards which it won for a second year running – a fantastic achievement. It’s had slightly less impact in its domestic coverage.

ITV unveiled its “theatre of news” in 2004 – a cross between the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and a set from the London Fashion Show.

Newscasters now have to sashay while they read their lines.

In the field, Julian Manyon did some amazing work during the Beslan siege and I expect he and Paul Wood will share the reporter honours this year.

At home Nick Robinson caught the eye with his idiosyncratic style.

Sky News secured two exclusive interviews this year – one with Robert Mugabe, the other with David Beckham’s squeeze, Rebecca Loos. The latter, unsurprisingly, made a bigger splash, though the first was probably a bigger scoop.

Sky didn’t look quite so good when the Boscastle floods struck in Cornwall – they were beaten comprehensively by both the BBC and ITN which had regional operations nearby.

Sky News did, however, secure its first major terrestrial news supply contract and from next year will be running the news on Five.

Kirsty Young, Charlie Stayt and a few other staff will transfer over but 2004 marks the end of an exciting era for the Five News team at ITN.

I’m biased, of course, but since the launch seven years ago, Five News has been one of the stand-out shows on the channel, winning several awards and much-needed critical accolade.

Despite relatively small audiences, it also exerted significant influence on other TV news services -all of which now use techniques pioneered in this country by Five.

Ex- Five News staffers, such as Deborah Turness, Gay Flashman, Craig Oliver and Jon Williams, are now holding down top news jobs on ITV, BBC and Channel 4.

So what to look forward to in 2005? The General Election promises to be rather more challenging and interesting than the last one and the elections in Iraq – if they happen – will also be a major test for all three news organisations. Who knows where the War on Terror will take us in the next 12 months.

Off screen, the new management at BBC News will have to implement some serious cuts. ITV News -on relatively tight budgets and resources – has to try to keep raising its game on terrestrial and 24-hour news.

Five News relaunches under Sky from a new £20m news centre in Osterley and the rest of Sky news follows shortly after.

Channel 4 News won’t want to rest on its Emmy laurels and is also due for a MoT.

The days when a news programme overhauled itself every five or six years are long gone. Constant reinvention is now the norm.

Returning to The Battle of the News Channels, as well as raising money for good causes, this was also a glorious opportunity for Alastair Campbell to take a pop at some of the senior political journalists on TV.

This is a species he regards with only slightly less contempt than his favourite target – the national newspaper lobby hack.

In a preview article he wrote for The Times, he called Sky’s political editor Adam Boulton “a prig”, Nick Robinson was dismissed as an irritating “swot” (look at those glasses) and the BBC’s Andrew Marr was called “bookish” – and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.

In contrast Alastair is much more gentlemanly when it comes to the ladies. On the night there was distinct favouritism towards ITN’s Katie Derham, Sky’s Julie Etchingham and Fiona Bruce of the BBC-funny that.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll return in the new year.

Next week: Alison Hastings

Chris Shaw

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