Smartening up TV news

There’s a conventional wisdom about television news programmes – they’re all dumbing down in a desperate attempt to increase or just maintain their audiences.

It’s not true.

A couple of years ago a casual observer could have been forgiven for this view. Under the Dyke regime there’s no doubt that BBC News was making strenuous efforts to increase its accessibility. The Six O’Clock News in particular became rampantly populist and ITV News found itself having to go even more “tabloid” in an effort to maintain its market position and put “clear red water” between itself and the BBC.

In the late Nineties even Channel 4 News adopted a more easygoing style with shorter items, more features and even the occasional flash of humour to lighten the heavyweight agenda.

This general trend reflected the bigger developments in television, which saw the main terrestrial channels put under intense pressure by the rapid growth of cable and satellite channels† and the arrival of the fifth terrestrial player Channel Five. The populist tendency also had its own momentum as competition for distinctiveness drove the BBC One and ITV to chase each other downmarket.

Today this general trend is in reverse and even a casual comparison between the main news bulletins of 2002 and those of today would confirm that television news agendas are heading upmarket.

The first to buck the tabloid trend was (though I say it myself) Five News.

Being the junior player we know we have to be different or we die. A couple of years ago we realised that our ultraaccessible agenda was no longer that different from ITV’s, BBC’s or even Channel 4’s offering. We gradually shifted into more serious territory. We more or less dumped showbiz gossip, the “and finally” items and the more lurid crime stories. We began to deconstruct more complex social, political and international stories.

This suited the channel, which was also repositioning itself as a more responsible and grown-up player.

Suddenly we found that Five was leading on the Middle East, while the BBC and ITV were running with the Beckhams.

Now the mainstream news services are also shifting their agendas, but probably for different reasons. The combination of the post Hutton soulsearching and the forthcoming Charter review has played straight into the hands of the “serious squad” at BBC News. The programme editors who led the rebranded Six and Ten have been moved on and the agenda has got more and more stolid and grown-up.

It’s not just a terrestrial phenomenon.

BBC 24 recently had European Referendum week, which would have been unthinkable even a few months ago. The strategy now is clearly not to chase ratings but to hold the intellectual and editorial high ground.

ITV News is moving upscale too, but again for different reasons. There’s a basic commercial formula when judging ratings performance.

Advertisers want large numbers of rich and young eyeballs. First and foremost commercial TV wants lots and lots of viewers, but if you can’t have lots then hopefully they’ll be young, and if they can’t be young then at least you hope they’ll be rich. The problem for ITV News was that its viewers were getting fewer, older and poorer.

Addressing a shrinking audience is difficult for news. Volume is overwhelmingly determined by your position in the schedule – in particular what was on before the news and what’s on the other channels at the same time. News editors can’t really do a lot about that, but they can influence the type of viewer by adjusting the agenda. ITV’s populist strategy was actually quite damaging commercially, which is why it has taken the strategic decision to go upscale on ITV.

It started with News at 10.30 and has now spread to the Early Evening News at 6.30pm.

Just a couple of weeks ago the Posh and Becks highly staged reconciliation photo-opportunity was analysed at some length on the ITV Lunchtime News the following day, but dropped completely for the later news programmes.

A few months ago they’d have been milked to death all day long.

There’s now another major factor at play in determining daily news agendas – namely the regulatory climate.

Ofcom, the new super-regulator, is currently consulting left, right and centre on the role of news in modern public service broadcasting.

Its first report published at the end of last month made for some interesting reading. Number one conclusion is that the public regard news as easily the most important ingredient in the public service element of any channel’s offering.

The second observation was that although terrestrial viewers now have 80 per cent more news available to them than 10 years ago, viewing of terrestrial news programmes has actually declined by 6 per cent in the same period and, among the under 35s, it is down 15 per cent.

With this kind of commercial pressure, it’s not surprising that news programmes are being moved closer and closer to the edges of the primetime schedules and that programme makers are constantly seeking ways to re-engage with their disappearing audience.

News is not yet an endangered species in the terrestrial jungle, but it could be within a decade and that’s what worries the regulator.

As Ofcom seeks to redefine its priorities in policing public service broadcasting, all the early signals suggest news will remain its primary concern.

Ofcom may well relax its attitude towards other traditional public service genres such as arts, religion and even regional programming, but I predict it is likely to be as strict as ever when it comes to news.

In the current commercial and regulatory climate you would expect news agendas to smarten up, not dumb down and that – despite what you read in the newspapers – is exactly what’s happening. 

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

Next week: Janice Turner

by Chris Shaw

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