Farewell ITV News Channel: who cares?

Adrian Monck

Rolling news fans in the UK now have fewer channels, but in the US they are beginning to wonder who controls Fox News

AND
THEN there were two. Yes, rolling-news fans, in case you weren’t
looking, the ITV News Channel isn’t there any more. It closed in a
blaze of no Christmas interest back on Friday 23 December. Its demise
resulted in no public outrage and little comment – no Ofcom statement
even, for in its passing, it leaves nothing behind to regulate. It was
left to Lib Dem MP Don Foster to write its valediction, not exactly
Michael Henchard’s will, but he did manage a brisk 59 words.

When
ITN launched its news channel back in August 2000 the great and the
good flocked to the atrium of 200 Gray’s Inn Road to sip champagne and
cheer as the company finally acquired a direct route to viewers.
Another television studio for MPs and analysts, unknown outside their
own circles, to appear.

For so long at the whim of its customers,
the company now had a business of its own. Of course the ITN News
Channel didn’t last long. It was soon subsumed by ITV, which branded it
and relabelled it and did everything except invest in it. That’s not
fair to ITV, because invest is the wrong word.

Investment implies
that there is a return to be had, and as anyone knows who has ever
studied the financial bucket called TV news, it isn’t good on returns.

Now
70 jobs are going. At least there’s work in satire. The show Broken
News proudly claimed to employ 145 people to act out its six half hours
of satire. I spotted a couple of former colleagues among them. Now I
hated Broken News. It’s not just because as a former TV journalist I
can’t stand people satirising TV journalism. That goes without saying.
No, I hated it because it was complacent crap.

The idea that
there’s an unlimited number of rolling-news networks is total pony, as
the News Channel’s demise demonstrates only too clearly. What’s left
for a nation of 60 million is just the BBC and Sky ripping each other’s
throats out for a combined 1 per cent share of the viewing public. Of
course, in publicist-speak, that’s a combined weekly reach of well over
a million. But in the language you and I speak it’s NOBODY. No-one.
Nada. Henry Kissinger said it – the battles are so bitter because the
stakes are so low.

AMERICAN CONSERVATIVES’ long love affair with
the Fox News Channel could be coming to an end. Early signs of
disenchantment are appearing in the blogs and websites that have so
long been the channel’s online cheerleaders.

As US media writer
Ken Auletta recently pointed out in the New Yorker, the secret of Fox’s
success is that its “core viewers are conservatives, and they would
seem to identify with Fox as their club for news”.

Auletta
pointed to polling showing that 46 per cent of FNC viewers identified
themselves as conservative, compared with 40 per cent of CNN viewers
(not bad for the ‘Communist News Network’). But, because Fox viewers
are more committed, they watch 70 per cent more cable news than their
CNN counterparts. That viewing commitment helps explain Fox’s ratings
success, since the Nielsen ratings service counts length of viewing and
not just total number of viewers.

But two things have raised hackles in the clubhouse of late.

First
up was a Robert Kennedy Jr documentary on climate change. Given the
position of some US conservatives that climate change is a conspiracy
by an alarmist liberal media to undermine American freedoms, just
airing the topic is tantamount to soaking the stars and stripes in
gasoline in preparation for a good flag-burning.

Getting an
environmentalist, a Democrat and a Kennedy to author a programme on the
subject – well that’s like deciding not to set fire to the flag, but
poop on it instead.

That was back in November.

Last month a
Saudi billionaire revealed he’d gotten the folks at FNC to drop the
word Muslim from its banner coverage of the riots in France. In case
you’re not familiar with the tale, Prince Al Waleed bin Talal owns 5.46
per cent of FNC’s parent company News Corp. While watching France go up
in flames on Fox (“We report. You decide”), he saw them label the story
“Muslim Riots”. Picking up the phone to Rupert Murdoch “as a viewer,
not a shareholder”, Prince Al Waleed told the News Corp boss he thought
they were just plain riots. The on-air strap duly changed, noted News
Corp’s fourth largest shareholder.

Now Fox isn’t attributing the
on-air change to any outside influence, but either way the prince had a
pretty reasonable point. We can’t all buy News Corp stock to get Mr
Murdoch’s attention, but it does illustrate how effectively the free
ownership of media encourages… erm… diversity.

So Fox club
members are wringing their hands over the influence of – let’s not beat
about the bush – an Arab. How could someone who is virtually a
terrorist (he also funds jihadist stronghold Harvard University) be
allowed to jeopardise a reliable source of conservative programming? As
one blogger wrote: “You can’t even believe Fox News anymore.” Say it
ain’t so!

Adrian Monck is head of journalism at City University

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