Rolling-news giants and the battle for world domination

The lacklustre BBC should take a few lessons from its speedier and more dynamic 24-hour-news rival

SOMETIME LATER THIS year, Sky News will relaunch its service from a new purpose-built headquarters out in Osterley.

Many might say the move is long overdue. I worked for Sky when it
launched back in 1989 and it is slightly disturbing to think that the
rather cramped newsroom has been occupied 24/7 by sweaty TV hacks for
well over 5,000 long days. No wonder it’s a little bit battered and
dank.

The move up the housing ladder is an opportunity for Sky
News to reinvent itself again and reinforce its position as the market
leader in rolling news.

It is a tough market with three domestic
players – Sky News, BBC 24 and the ITV News Channel – battling for
viewers, not to mention the global brands such as CNN, BBC World and
the fast-expanding Al Jazeera.

The gleaming new Sky News HQ is in
the same business park near Heathrow where BSkyB based its original
operation a decade-and-a-half ago. Gradually, the light industrial
units were converted into TV production centres and studios with
imaginative names like Sky Unit 1 and Sky Unit 2.

For visitors to
Centaurs Business Park today, the overall effect is a cross between
Tracey Island (without the palm trees) and a James Bond set – the kind
of place where the villain masterminds his scheme for world domination
before Bond comes in and blows the whole thing up.

Anyway it is big, it is digital and it is very state of the art.

Size
and technology have helped Sky News stay ahead of the game for 15
years, but the editorial offering has also been central to its success.

Sky
News, unlike the BBC and ITV news channels, has generally pursued a
purist approach to the rolling-news format. The basic proposition is
hard news delivered as quickly and boldly as possible – preferably live.

Sky
News has never been convinced by “appointment viewing”, preferring to
concentrate on providing a first-class round-the-clock utility. Under
Nick Pollard’s editorship, the ‘back half hours’ were abandoned and
even higher-profile experiments like The Littlejohn Show failed to last
the course.

Now that’s going to change and from this autumn we
will see three of Sky’s news presenters get their own shows. Adam
Boulton, Julie Etchingham and Kay Burley all get star billing in the
current Sky News line-up.

For many years, CNN’s most successful
sub brand has been The Larry King Show. Larry is the doyenne of news
channel interviewers and he has many imitators – not least in the UK.

There’s
the HardTalk interview programme on BBC 24 and the ITV News Channel has
had success with Live with Alastair Stewart. Alastair not only won the
RTS Presenter of the Year Award, but also delivered some good publicity
for the channel.

In the US, where the multi-channel market is
much more mature than ours, all the niche channels have spent the past
few years trying to broaden their appeal with a more general
programming schedule.

Take Court TV. It began life broadcasting
live trials and the occasional serial killer documentary. Now it’s
become more of a crime-themed, general entertainment channel with
quizzes and reality shows shouldering a loose crime theme. Programmes
with the word “murder” in their title are generally not welcome.

Fox
News has famously seen off CNN and network news rivals – partly thanks
to the success of high-profile right-wing talk shows like Fox and
Friends and The O’Reilly Factor.

Many have predicted the
“Foxification” of Sky News, but I don’t see that happening – not least
because of the regulatory climate in the UK and Pollard’s personal
commitment to fair and impartial news.

It should also be said
that over-diversification has caused some US cable and satellite
channels to lose rather than gain viewers and many are now returning to
their original broadcasting purpose.

One of the great mysteries
of rolling news in the UK is why the BBC, with its vastly superior
resource base, has failed to knock Sky News off its perch.

BBC
managers insist they are not in a race with Sky to be first –
preferring, they say, to be accurate (which assumes you can’t be both),
but this doesn’t explain why BBC 24 still often looks dowdier and more
amateur than its commercial rivals.

If the BBC could get its act
together on 24-hour news, it could be truly awesome. It could start by
learning two simple lessons – one from ITV and one from Sky.

Lesson
one: the ITV News Channel has forced itself into the reckoning by
persuading its well-known terrestrial reporters and presenters to
become the faces of its 24-hour news channel.

Meanwhile, BBC 24
seems populated by “B” team presenters and reporters – as a viewer I
always feel I’m not getting the best of what the BBC has to offer.

Lesson
two: At Sky News, the secret of its success isn’t just speed, it’s also
a genuine, dynamic energy and a real sense of excitement about the
news. I’m not sure if it’s the set, the air conditioning or the culture
of the newsroom, but BBC 24 seems to have the knack of sucking all the
adrenaline out of rolling news. The bigger the story, the more
laid-back it gets.

The subliminal message I get from BBC 24 is
this: “If you want to get all over-excited about this, switch to Sky
News. We’re taking it in our stride.”

Finally, I mentioned the
rapid expansion of Al Jazeera into a global brand with a new
English-language service due to start sometime next year.

Interestingly,
Al Jazeera International is placing major emphasis on news features,
magazine programmes and documentaries as well as the more traditional
fare of rolling news. Director of programmes Paul Gibbs believes this
will be the key to its success in the crowded news market.

Providing
additional programming is a costly strategy. It requires a lot more
cameras, production and production staff, which is why Al Jazeera is
aggressively recruiting Englishspeaking TV journalists.

They’ve
already poached three senior news editors from ITV and it’s likely
they’ll pick up many of the BBC’s best producers – given the imminent
cull of news staff there. Al Jazeera can offer tax-free salaries, free
schooling, health care, company cars and housing. It’s almost as if
Roman Abramovich had moved into the rolling-news business.

■ Chris Shaw is senior programme controller of Five

Next week: Janice Turner

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