All to play for in the 10pm war

Britain’s broadcasters are a polite bunch. For years they’ve shied away from head-to-head conflict, preferring instead to schedule around each other. Apart from a brief spat during the ‘News at When’saga, we’ve been spared the direct ‘battle of the bulletins’seen in America. That is, until now.

For those of us still baffled by the unwarranted execution of the old News at Ten, almost a decade ago, this bout has been a source of some excitement. The stakes are high – ‘failure is not an option”, we are told. But a lot has changed in 10 years: the BBC has made the timeslot its own and produced a programme that’s in the spirit of ITN‘s venerable sleeping giant.

The new News at Ten bonged back on to the air like an old friend. ITV‘s boss, Michael Grade, clearly loves the past and his returning news show gave us much more than a passing nod to it. For me, the look was confident and classy: the updated opening titles were magnificent and the studio, with its London skyline, looked deep and inviting.

ITN’s recent obsession with ‘walking and talking’was nowhere to be seen: the famous ‘theatre of news’has closed its doors. Instead, we had Sir Trevor McDonald and Julie Etchingham sitting down throughout. He looked a bit rusty, but retained the sense of authority that has made him a national treasure. She was polished to word perfect, with the understated elegance that defines her as one of television’s hottest properties.

But what about the news? After all the excitement, I was slightly disappointed. The ‘scoop’– an interview with Diana’s former lover, the surgeon Hasnat Khan (3) – was a great get, but it was strangely filmed and fell a bit flat. The inquest hearing that day had produced some dynamite from Paul Burrell, well told by James Mates, but it all seemed to be in the wrong order.

I glazed over during the piece about Gordon Brown’s issues with Northern Rock. It got much better with Bill Neely in Antarctica. After a long journey to the ends of the Earth (and that was just the intro script) we were brought a ‘special assignment’from one of the best in the business. Neely’s ‘live’report from an ice cave might have felt gratuitous, but it was spectacular.

After that, there was another good get: Fabio Capello, sadly not saying very much. Then came the famous ‘And finally”: the rescue of some seamen from a sinking ship. For uplift, we got an airlift. It was an odd way to end.

Over on the other side, it was business as usual. Well, almost. The BBC had primed its big guns and kicked off with a good scoop: a very watchable piece from John Simpson, undercover in Zimbabwe. Disguised in a baseball cap, he brought us a sit-rep on the human suffering in the capital Harare, complete with a ‘live’from ‘somewhere, we can’t tell you where”. Simpson is a master storyteller and this was class.

Another veteran, Nicholas Witchell, brought us the Diana inquest. Later on, a great craftsman of pictures, Gavin Hewitt, was wheeled out to tell a great story that ITN had mysteriously declined to package: about a policeman who almost certainly killed his wife, but was released on bail and killed his mother-in-law. As if to prove that populist journalism can also be the Beeb’s business, there was a Madeleine story too: an interview with the mum of the original ‘arguido’Robert Murat.

If ‘content is king’then the BBC won the day for me, but of course this contest is about much more than two programmes going head-to-head on one night. News, with its year-round certainty in the schedule, helps define a channel’s identity in a fragmented multichannel world. The bigger battle is just beginning.

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