UK: Hard news, hard times at ITN. (3 of 3)

UK: Hard news, hard times at ITN. (3 of 3) - An interesting recent suggestion is that ITN and TV-am (currently non-ITN serviced) should merge, or at least take stakes in each other. The highly profitable morning broadcaster has a 24-hour franchise, but o

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

An interesting recent suggestion is that ITN and TV-am (currently non-ITN serviced) should merge, or at least take stakes in each other. The highly profitable morning broadcaster has a 24-hour franchise, but only operates a three-hour service. ITN could broadcast a news service throughout the day, generating the much needed extra cash. Other possibilities lie in providing radio coverage to challenge the BBC and Independent Radio News (IRN), or possibly in publishing.

There is, however, a problem with too much diversification. ITN is committed to providing a service to its owners, the ITV stations. Provided that news bulletins are shown at agreed times across the country, for example at 5.45 pm and 10.00 pm, this is no problem. If, however, it spreads itself about too thinly it may find conflicts of interest. What if the Prime Minister were assassinated at five past nine, in time for a satellite station's nine o'clock news, but 55 minutes before "News at Ten"? Does it hold on to the exclusive for its major shareholders or go with its journalistic impulses?

To add to the problems, some stations began to voice unease about the format and content of the traditional international and national ITN service followed by a short local programme. Stuart Prebble, head of Granada's regional news, argues that this is ridiculous. He points out that in times of national emergency the public turns automatically to the BBC. "Let us cheerfully concede that the BBC is the voice of the nation as viewed from London, and provide for ITV's viewers a perspective on the news the way it is seen from where they live." He wants ITN to continue to gather the news, but for individual companies to be left to edit and present programmes, giving ITN bulletins a local dimension.

ITN's Purvis was strongly against the idea. He felt that there would be too little control over quality and points to the United States to back his case. There, he says, they have three types of news programme: national and international, regional, and a hybrid of the two. "But", he points out, "the experience in the US has not necessarily been a success."

Sir David goes further in dismissing the scheme, saying that Granada is in no position to talk, having, as he says, a particular problem because "in many ways it is the weakest of the regions in its regional news coverage". But he is not unsympathetic to the idea: "In some ways I don't think Prebble is radical enough. Why not start off with a major ITN chunk, and start cutting in regional programmes later?"

Further major threats loom in the well publicised "franchise auction" due to take place this autumn. Amid some confusion over "quality thresholds", all existing ITV companies will have to bid for their futures and this will affect ITN. Mathews will have to spend the coming months negotiating revenues with companies that may cease to exist in October.

But in the end ITN continues to have a bright future. The advertising squeeze and huge costs of covering the Gulf and the upheavals in Eastern Europe are worries, but rivals are similarly affected. The BBC has had its licence fee cut in real terms and Sky News has been told to slash spending by 10%. And ITN's position as monopoly supplier of news to the Channel 3 stations (current or future) is assured for at least the next five, and probably 10, years.

While admitting that the Gray's Inn Road site's top five floors are a major worry, Mathews points out that they have taken into account that there will be no revenue from them until the end of the year. They are, he adds, in a prime site, and its importance is likely to grow with the development of the nearby King's Cross Channel tunnel terminal.

Notwithstanding the gloomy economic prospects for the year ahead and the blighted advertising market, ITN can claim that news is even more important than ever. When the television marketers object, ITN can point to its "News at Ten" slot: its 10.15 pm advertising break commands the highest rates of the day - £50,000 for a 30-second ad. As ITN's Purvis points out: "Increasingly we're going to find ourselves having to argue that news is good business - but I don't think that's too difficult."

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