ITN calls on Government to restore BBC news to 9pm

BBC claims victory with its Ten O’Clock News

As the BBC pronounced the first year of its Ten O’Clock News a success, rival ITN has stepped up its calls for the Government to force the corporation to restore its news to the 9pm slot.

BBC figures, released to mark the anniversary of the news move to 10pm, claimed victory both in the head-to-head battle with the ITN-produced bulletin for ITV and in the campaign to stem the decline in news audiences.

The figures show that since the move 12 months ago to 10pm, the programme has attracted an average of 5 million viewers on weekdays. The BBC claimed this as a success in its campaign to stem the decline in news audiences, which stood at 5 million in 2000 and were falling at a rate of 250,000 a year.

Since News at Ten was reinstated at least three nights a week on ITV, it has averaged audiences of 4.4 million, rising to 4.9 million on nights the ITV’s news went out at 10pm, claims the corporation.

But ITN has disputed the figures and sent a briefing note to Downing Street. It calls for a review of the BBC’s news move, and claims that before September, when news audiences increased significantly, the BBC’s 10pm bulletin was attracting an audience of 4.8 million, a drop of 300,000 from a 2000 figure of 5.1 million.

ITN claimed that up until September, when news audiences increased following the terrorist attacks in the US, ITN was chalking up an average audience of 5 million on the days when the two news bulletins went head-to-head, compared to the BBC’s 4.8 million.

Although the BBC decision to stick to its guns over its 10pm move and go head-to-head with ITV was generally welcomed by staff as an uncharacteristically decisive move, it sparked a warning from the then Media Secretary Chris Smith that his department might intervene if news audiences were seen to decline.

ITN said such intervention was now justified because of the BBC’s failure to meet guarantees given to the Commons select committee by the then chairman of the board of governors, Sir Christopher Bland, that the news would only be moved "if we thought the audience for news would be greater rather than less as a result".

"We are calling for an investigation into the long-term effects of the BBC’s move," a spokesman said.

But the BBC’s head of television news, Roger Mosey, claimed that in recent weeks the BBC was "reversing the trend" and that since June it had been attracting 5.2 million viewers, compared to ITV’s 4.2 million on nights that the two bulletins were head-to-head.

"ITN said it welcomed the chance to go head-to-head because it always wins," said Mosey. "But since September we have attracted more viewers just about every single night, which shows that viewers like our approach to news, particularly at a time like this. And the fact remains that we do go out at the same time every night. That’s nothing to do with ITN, it’s not their choice, but our decision has paid off."

An increase of one million in combined news audiences from the previous year’s 8.2 million was also flagged up by the BBC as part of its success overall in halting the decline of news audiences.

By Julie Tomlin

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