Time to bite the bulletin

News producers, like arms dealers, can do rather well out of war. Even now there are signs that news ratings are rising across the board as people engage with the public debate for and against military action in Iraq. In these circumstances, the news begins to look like a commercial opportunity rather than a ratings millstone.

This is partly why ITV has decided to move its News at Ten to 9pm for the duration of any conflict. The 9pm slot – ironically once owned by the BBC before it moved to 10pm – makes complete sense at a time when viewers are actively seeking out news programmes on television.

News at Ten has suffered a severe ratings decline ever since it was unceremoniously forced to move anchor four years ago. Shifting to 9pm will almost certainly help reverse its fortunes.

When it comes to good viewing figures, scheduling is almost as important as the programme itself. Unkind or erratic scheduling can spell death or marginalisation for serious programmes like news. No one wants their show up against Coronation Street or EastEnders. Going head-to-head with another news programme can also be quite damaging, but even more disastrous – in my view – is a variable start time.

There was a time when you could set your clock by the “bongs”, but in recent years News at Ten has become the television equivalent of the Virgin train service. Last week (24 to 28 February), for example, it began at 10.40, 10.45, 10.04, 10.05 and 11pm.

When ITV turned News at Ten into a movable feast, the intention was to improve overall ratings performance for the channel between 6pm and 10.30pm. In fact peak-time viewing of ITV has fallen roughly 15 per cent in the past two years and ratings for News at Ten have slumped too.

It is possible ITV’s peaktime share would be even lower if News at Ten had stayed put, but we’ll never know.

The debacle of “News at When” not only turned off viewers but also hurt the reputation of ITV as a whole. News is a public service and if you dick the viewers about with a variable start time, they are bound to draw the conclusion that the channel doesn’t take its news or its news viewers as seriously as it should. The new management at ITV Network Centre seems eager to change this perception. In its 9pm berth, the ITV news will not only cease to be in direct competition for viewers of the Ten O’Clock News on BBC 1, but it will also have a fixed start time.

When ratings rise – as they will anyway in a war – the argument for a permanent start time will become irresistible.

Once the war is over, ITV will probably commit to a 10.30 news Monday to Thursday. The famous old brand may have to go, but at least the viewer will know when to tune in.

A fixed slot would also please the establishment (regulators, politicians, retired news executives, etc), not to mention the ITN staff who actually make the bloody programme.

Excited by the potential war dividend”, Channel 4 and Five have also been playing about with their news. Ratings for Channel 4 News at 7pm have been very healthy indeed and this seems to have persuaded C4 to bring forward a plan to drop Powerhouse (the Westminster political programme) and introduce a lunchtime edition of Channel 4 News starting on 17 March. Five News, which has also seen viewing rise, has renamed its 7.30 news War in Iraq.

These are probably the first of many additional scheduled and non-scheduled news programmes we will see on all five terrestrial channels if and when war breaks out.

The potential of the short-form news bulletin is much underestimated. In the minds of most broadcasters, they don’t really count as proper programmes.

In fact, the TV magazines and newspapers list them only if they are at least three minutes long and Barb doesn’t produce overnight ratings for them unless they are listed as programmes.

Updates or short bulletins tend to be less well resourced than traditional news programmes even though they often have more viewers.

Last year the second most-watched programme on Five was Five News at 10pm on Tuesday, 26 February, with 3.8 million viewers.

OK, it was only three minutes long and it was shown in the centre break of the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day, but it underlines the potential of short bulletins.

Producers and journalists may regard them as a throwaway, but audience research suggests they are often preferred to full-length news.

Given modern viewers’ aversion to boredom, maybe the future lies in the fast-paced news fix. The real addicts can always immerse themselves in 24-hour rolling news.

BBC Three clearly believes short is beautiful. It is running with the 60 Seconds news format first seen on BBC Choice which successfully packs half a dozen stories into a breathless minute.

The producers have pioneered the device of simultaneously showing two views of the same event on a split screen, giving viewers two minutes of picture for a minute’s worth of stories. If you have a third eye, you can also read the news crawler at the bottom of the screen.

The News Show at 7.45pm was a late addition to the BBC Three schedule designed primarily to reassure the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, which had questioned the need for another youth-orientated digital channel with no obviously distinctive offerings.

The News Show (average audience 6,000) is certainly distinctive – in a self-conscious, media-literate way. It seems to spend almost as much time reviewing the way the news is covered on other channels as it does covering the news itself.

Sneering at ITN’s decision to interview psychologist Dr Raj Persaud about Sir Alex Ferguson’s recent temper tantrum might amuse a few TV journalists, but it isn’t exactly newsworthy.

The non-stop music bed, multi-screen backdrop and overenthusiastic use of digital video effects also contribute to the impression that The News Show is heavy on style and gimmickry and rather light on content.

These are early days for the newly launched service, but with seven dedicated reporters and access to the BBC’s entire news-gathering operation, it really should be better and smarter than it is.

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

Next week: Bill Hagerty

by Chris Shaw

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