Cinderella years are over

 

It’s great to see news back at the centre of ITV’s strategic thinking. The relaunch of ITV News is clearly a success, but what really heartened me was the fact that, after the Cinderella years, news has apparently regained its proper status on Britain’s main commercial television channel.

It’s not just the move back to a fixed start time (which I understand is sacrosanct even if Manchester United meet Chelsea in the Champions League Final and it goes to penalties), but it’s also the fact that the ITV merger was so beautifully choreographed together with the news relaunch, complete with expensive marketing campaign.

Charles Allen and the senior management of ITV have finally reached the conclusion that good news is worth every penny, regardless of the raw ratings data and the scheduling problems it presents.

So what about the new-look ITV News? Again, what impressed me more than the bells and whistles was the feeling that the news at 10.30 felt weighty and solid. It had a bit of bottom. For the first time in a while I felt I was watching a truly worthy alternative to the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News rather than the low-calorie alternative.

This is very much the stated intention.

ITV has made it clear that it wants a decent ABC1 audience for this show, so it’s designed to be more upmarket and more male – hence the sports bulletin. Again, this is evidence of ITV seeing the commercial potential rather than the commercial downsides of news.

As well as being a tad more serious, the new ITV news at 10.30 is longer.

In its peripatetic phase, News at Ten had an actual running time of around 17 minutes.

According to my watch it is now just more than 20 minutes long -much of the extra minutage has been given over to sport – but the overall effect was a meatier show.

Despite the extra minutes, I did feel a little cheated by ITV’s promotional slogan. The press adverts and posters said “A lot can happen in 30 minutes” – quite a lot less can happen in 20 minutes of course, but maybe I take these things too literally.

ITV delivered a fresh interpretation of the News at Ten brand, but it also promised us a technological breakthrough which would leave its competitors in the stone ages. The million pound virtual-reality studio was certainly impressive, but to see it in all its glory you really had to be a digital subscriber.

The first 10.30pm news was a curiously static and unadventurous affair compared with the ITV News Channel, which uses the same studio.

Sir Trevor McDonald stood at the opening, which was quite exciting, but I don’t think he moved his feet an inch and then he sat down. Having spent a million quid on this thrilling virtual environment, it seemed a bit odd that the main man didn’t take us on a guided tour of his new digital domain and show us what it’s really capable of.

In contrast Chris Rogers, doing his walking-talking report on the Granada-Carlton merger for the ITV News Channel, was very cool indeed – much cooler, in fact, than the rather standard version of events by Caroline Kerr on the terrestrial flagship at 10.30pm that same day.

So should the competition be quaking? A Sky executive told me he felt the curved virtual reality wall was a rip-off of its own video wall and VR floor graphics – but even he acknowledged it looked pretty smart.

The BBC is suffering from the effects of Post-Hutton Trauma and one of the many symptoms of PHT appears to be the inability to look outside the confines of your own world.

Once BBC News managers digest what ITV has done, I think they will be a bit sick. The main BBC set looks very tired in comparison, while BBC News 24 – itself relaunched this year – looks positively antediluvian compared with the all singing and dancing ITV News Channel.

There are, though, a couple of potential long-term problems with the ultra-technological route ITV News has chosen. One is allowing production methods to restrict or skew editorial flexibility and judgement (one or two gremlins have already been spotted). It will be very interesting to see how quickly it settles down and how the new set works for the big breaking news stories.

The other problem is simply a byproduct of virtual reality. News is about real events at real locations.

Once you have such a fantastic set of technical kit there must be a temptation to divert more of ITV News’s resources into production and less into the basic but more costly activity of newsgathering. We will see.

Early viewing figures tell a mixed story for the ITV number crunchers.

In the week before launch, News at Ten averaged 3.8 million viewers and a 21 per cent share of the available audience.

In its first six days after relaunch, the show attracted an average audience of 4.5 million and the share was up to 27 per cent. This improvement was due in part to the massive inheritance from the second week of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!.

Once ITV resumed normal primetime service on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday last week, the average audience had fallen back to 3 million with a 19 per cent share – below its pre-launch levels.

It’s early days of course, but there must be a risk that as the 10.30 ITV News heads upmarket it will be aiming for the same male ABC1 viewers already catered for by Newsnight over on BBC Two and this could put a cap on its potential audience growth.

Overall though, this relaunch was a model of its kind and a hit for designer Simon Jago, the production team led by Deborah Turness and Dave Mannion and ITN as a whole.

ITV News has finally got an up-todate look and the latest kit – all it needs now is the newsgathering resources to mount a sustained and serious challenge to its BBC and Sky rivals. 

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Janice Turner

by Chris Shaw

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