Five-year 'marked decline' in television current affairs

Panorama: moved across schedules over 20 years

Even though there are more channels than ever before, television current affairs is in decline, both in terms of the number of programmes shown and range of topics covered, according to new research.

Bournemouth University’s Media School also found that the genre was being marginalised in the schedules.

“On the main terrestrial public service channels, regular current affairs is no longer central to the schedules and many topics are rarely, if ever, reported in depth. The decline is most marked over the past five years,” said Media School head Roger Laughton, unveiling the research at the university’s Current Affairs – An Endangered Species conference.

He warned that the decline presented a “democratic danger”, adding: “If you want an informed and engaged electorate, you need to make sure the public service broadcasting system presents all the issues to the public, not just the sexy ones.”

Analysing current affairs output in November at five-year intervals since 1983, the study found the most marked changes had been on ITV and Channel 4. ITV had four weekly series in 1983, three in 1988, two in 1993, one in 1998 and none in 2003.

Channel 4, which launched with a weekly current affairs slot in 1983, had reduced coverage to an erratic series of Dispatches in 2003.

It found BBC One’s Panorama had been “consistently present” but had moved across the schedules: Monday at 8.10pm in 1983; 9.30pm in 1988; 10pm in 1993, Sunday at 10.30pm in 2002 and 10.15pm in 2003. BBC Two had two mainstream current affairs series in 1983 and 1993 but only Correspondent now.

The research concluded there were more “event” programmes in 2003 than 20 years ago, with regular news magazines often containing items that would probably have been categorised as current affairs in earlier years.

It said ITV’s Tonight with Trevor McDonald was a “particularly successful topical programme that just falls outside the genre”.

Speaking at the conference, Steve Anderson, head of news and current affairs for the ITV Network, said Tonight had been the answer to the problem of providing a popular, peak time current affairs programme amid intense competition from all genres, across terrestrial and multi-channel television.

“Today we take our chances, not against Panorama but against the might of EastEnders, against free-toair popular entertainment on three other terrestrial channels, against the combined forces of more than 200 cable and satellite channels, the video machine, DVDs and on-line entertainment.

“That’s why ITV underwent the painful process a few years ago of decommissioning its peaktime current affairs stable for a programme that would actively seek to attract audiences to peak-time current affairs.”

By Wale Azeez

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