Brit network revamps primetime schedule

LONDON — Eight years ago when Blighty’s biggest commercial broadcaster ITV axed its flagship news show, “News at Ten,” most experienced webheads thought ditching such an iconic brand was dumb.

As Michael Grade, who returned to the ITV fold as its executive chairman a year ago, put it, the decision was “a shocking mistake” that “damaged ITV more than anything.”

On Jan. 14 the 30-minute newscast will return as part of a wider revamp of ITV1’s schedule designed to compete against main rival BBC1.

Skeptics reckon that bringing back “News at Ten” in an era when online news services and 24-hour news channels are commonplace could prove as disastrous for ITV1’s ratings and credibility as axing it did in 1999.

There are, however, commercial reasons for wanting the show back on air as a battling ITV seeks more upscale viewers and more advertising coin.

The decision to jettison “News at Ten,” a key part of ITV’s schedule for more than 25 years, was made to allow the broadcaster to sked films starting at 9 p.m., which it believed back then would win auds.

But it also allowed the BBC to switch its main BBC1 newscast from 9 to 10 p.m.

Overnight ITV lost 14% of its news audience. It replaced “News at Ten” with a latenight news show that was shunted around the schedule so frequently that it quickly became derided as “News at When” by confused auds.

“Our latenight news has struggled because of decisions taken several years ago,” admits ITV’s director of television Simon Shaps. “In a hugely competitive market, for us to have our major competitor transmit its main news program half an hour before us doesn’t work. It’s not a backward-looking view to think that in the age of the Internet audiences aren’t going to watch ‘News at Ten.’ There is as big an appetite for news as there is for soaps, drama and entertainment. The 10 p.m. slot can get audiences of 6 million.”

In its heyday “News at Ten,” launched in 1967, was the envy of the BBC, such was the prowess of its reporters and presentational style, provided by Independent Television News (ITN).

“The new ‘News at Ten’ will have all the ingredients that made the original program so successful — strong journalism, great filmmaking and the best-known news anchor in Britain,” Shaps says.

The news anchor in question is veteran ITN presenter Trevor McDonald, persuaded out of retirement.

He will be joined by co-presenter Julie Etchingham, poached from rival Sky News.

Etchingham’s interviewing talents famously netted a scoop from Tony Blair when the then-prime minister said he would continue to take long-haul holiday flights despite their damage to the environment.

It is exclusives like this that the revived “News at Ten” will need if it is to stand a chance of taking audiences away from the BBC’s rival “Ten O’Clock News.”

In the 1990s McDonald was regularly voted Blighty’s favorite news presenter, but at the BBC there are doubts that even with McDonald on board ITV can re-create the glory days of the original “News at Ten.”

“ITN no longer has the resources that we can deploy,” says a BBC newsman. “Despite the cuts, we have an in-depth strength that other U.K. news broadcasters can’t match. For that reason, ITV will struggle to make inroads into the BBC’s news audience at 10 p.m.”

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