Back with a bong: How will News At Ten battle the BBC?

The old wisdom would have been that the coming News At Ten battle is between two types of television news. One side, the Beeb, driven by the need to inform – at its best patrician and provocative, at its worst dull. The other side, ITN, driven by the need to tell stories, at its best emotionally engaging, at its worst crass. Let battle commence.

Except that time has mixed it all up. On the BBC side is former ITN golden boy Craig Oliver, who knows News At Ten so well he reinvented it for BBC1.

On ITV‘s, Alex Chandler, who has worked his way up through the ITV News ranks, and who has spent more time at ITN when News At Ten was off air than when it was on.

The real battle is not between the editors, but between two completely different methods of producing the news on television.

Take the BBC. Its 10pm news has a relatively modest budget, but it draws on the resources of the entire corporation – the world’s biggest broadcast newsgathering outfit – to fill half an hour.

The editor can order from long menus of home or foreign news filtered and prepared by experienced teams. It’s the editorial equivalent of dining at a hotel buffet, where success is measured not by how beautifully the food is presented on the plate, but by the quantity which has been stacked upon it.

So the job of the editor is not to fill a running order from those lists, but to act upon them and to shape the stories in conversations with reporters.

The tension is between the incremental changes in a story and the need for a programme to tell it coherently. Without that tension, an algorithm could construct a running order.

And this is where the sheer size of the BBC complicates the job. The very range of stories it can cover – the scale of its reporting operation – means that the 10pm is just one of a number of outlets.

The uniform ‘BBC-ness’of the material coming into a programme can overwhelm any individual character the bulletin might aspire to. Craig Oliver has sharpened up the 10 no end, but at the BBC his is one editorial voice among many important voices.

The BBC has strength in depth. You can rely on the players to perform. But where you can’t, changing them is difficult. Reporters report on different lines to different managers.

The contrast at ITN couldn’t be greater. News At Ten was the operational focus of a bespoke newsgathering machine. Its reporters were a family.

There were so few of them that they had to get on air regularly. An editor would know their individual strengths and weaknesses so well that assignments could almost be tailored to them.

The smallness meant that many of the conversations were unnecessary. The machine worked slickly and quickly. Reporters knew what was expected of them. When they failed to meet expectations, retribution was swift.

And unlike the BBC where parallel teams might collide, ITN reporters knew that if they didn’t get the story, no one else would.

So how will the new News At Ten look? On a good night the programme will be able to line up the likes of Bill Neely, Penny Marshall, Tom Bradby, Julian Manyon, Jon Irvine, Keir Simmons and half a dozen more besides.

Fewer stories can afford to fall down. If a big story fails to make the grade at the Beeb there are many others waiting in line to take its place.

The money that ITN gets to make the national and international news is £30m, and that cash has to fund other bulletins too.

While cash can still be found for presenter salaries, the budget for newsgathering stretches ever tighter. To balance the books, the tap will have to be turned off some weeks. Viewers don’t get told. No graphic appears to say that this week the news is running on empty.

Foreign news suffers most. Every pound spent has to be seen on air. No bad thing, ITV bosses might say, and few would argue that ITN is not adept at parsimony. Fewer still would argue that parsimony has given way simply to poverty.

So, for Patrick O’Brian fans, the contest shapes up as an undermanned sloop against an unwieldy ship of the line.

But to look at the battle purely in journalistic terms is to miss the point.

This is not an encounter the audience is crying out for. It watched News At Ten come and go with barely a murmur. Its modern incarnation is a far cry from the programme that sat in the top 10 and commanded a regular audience of 12 million five nights a week in the late Sixties.

So will this be television news’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar? Let’s hope that amid the cuts, there’s still some thrust.

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