A brief history of the News At Ten: one of the biggest mistakes in the British TV News business

The Culture Secretary’s  speech to the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge last night included an observation about whether the BBC should be presenting its flagship evening bulletin at 10 pm – the same time as its main commercial rival ITV. “It is important to look at the impact the BBC has on commercial rivals. To give one example, is it sensible that its main evening news bulletin goes out at the same time as ITV’s?”

It seemed worth refreshing memories about how this came about and what questions it raises about commercial decisions. For a start, younger readers may find it hard to believe that for many years such news bulletins attracted massive audiences in the days before the internet and rolling news channels.

The News at Ten was for decades an editorially valued and  commercially lucrative landmark in the television landscape. The BBC’s main bulletin was on an hour earlier at 9pm. ITV’s News At Ten had the slot to itself and drew a bigger audience. Plus in the days when TV advertising had little competition (the internet has helped destroy that) its commercial break was one of the most expensive and high profile advertising slots in the country. In 1988 it was a media news event in itself when the Hanson Trust mega-corporation bought up the entire 2′ 30″ minute slot to run a bombastic celebration of its brilliance, featuring, as I can still remember from viewing it once on TV, a through-the-decades montage to David Bowie’s Changes of 60s dollybirds, concorde & city traders, with an animated graph of its rising share price. (See above) Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45 on twitter) who sourced the Hanson advert for me.

In the late nineties with other commercial tv rivals Channels 4 and 5 as well as Sky now well established, according to media reporting at the time, the newly merged down Carlton/Granada ITV management that owned ITN, felt the half hour slot was more a burden than an asset. There has always been regulation around the public service aspect of ITV’s programming, so moving the flagship news programme was a very big deal. Crucially ITV wanted to screen blockbuster movies and sports events without that big 30 minute  interruption. Even before online video streaming and DVD box sets, many media industry people, not just ITN journalists, felt this was a shortsighted decision that would destroy an important and valued brand connection between the channel and the national audience. But ITV went ahead anyway and shunted the news to about 11pm in March 1999.

Along with selling most of the freehold & leasing back its 200 Grays Inn Road headquarters in 2001, taking a major contributions holiday from the staff pension fund during the 2000s, and buying the social media dead end that was Friends Reunited and selling it for a fraction of its 2005 purchase price, the decision to vacate the 10pm slot seemed like the commercially most damaging decision made by the company’s senior management.

According to the Guardian’s timeline article from 2007 the BBC’s director general Greg Dyke waited 17 months till announcing plans to take up the empty slot which actually happened in October 2000. The BBC made a huge success of it. “I personally liked News at Ten,” said Tony Blair in 2000. “I also had some concerns about the likely consequences of moving it … I think those concerns, I’m afraid, have been largely borne out by what has happened since.”

ITV did not reap a ratings bonanza by dropping News at Ten. Quite the opposite. Under pressure from the regulator the ITC, ITV relaunched the News at Ten in January 2001, less than 2 years after it had vacated it. Despite the excellent quality of its news output, the channel has never managed to claw back the majority audience share it used to own until it threw it away of its own accord. A decision that many media experts and journalists had warned against from the start.

At the time that News at Ten returned, ITN was also making the news for both its commercial terrestrial rivals – Channel 4 and Channel 5, so it’s hard to know what would have happened if a genuine commercial rival had tried to take the slot. (Channel 5 News was made by Sky for several years from 2005). The fact is that it was the BBC, which is funded by public licence fee, which made a smart commercial decision in terms of attracting its now much larger audience to its Ten O’ Clock bulletin. 14 years on, is that a concern for the BBC as the Culture Secretary has apparently implied? Or as many in the news and media business warned back in 1999,  proof that a bad commercial decision can cause irreparable damage where people are free to choose what to watch; and that responsibility lies with those who made it?

Special thanks to Brian O’Keefe (@rider45) for sourcing the Hanson Trust advert on twitter and Oliver Bayley (@) for reminding me of the Friends Reunited purchase.

I  worked at ITN, which makes ITV news and Channel 4 News from 2000-2011.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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