News 24 reaches for the Sky

BBC hopes revamp will lure auds from Murdoch rival

LONDON — Running a 24-hour news channel should be a no-brainer for one of the world’s biggest news organizations — particularly when it’s spending around £50 million ($85 million) a year of taxpayers’ money.

BBC News 24 has nevertheless faced just that problem, and the digital channel relaunched last week in an attempt to address six years of criticism and remedy disappointing ratings.

The majority of viewers still get their news from the terrestrial channels. But auds with access to cable and satellite prefer the snappy style of Rupert Murdoch satcaster BSkyB’s highly regarded Sky News, which frequently breaks stories before its staid BBC rival.

However, News 24 is resisting the urge to lure auds by “Fox-ifying” news — i.e., parroting the sensational, partisan style of another Murdoch asset, the U.S.-based Fox News.

Instead, News 24 is going upscale, playing to the Beeb’s traditional strengths of analysis and explanation.

“If anything, we’re going to become more broadsheet,” says BBC head of television news Roger Mosey, using the British term for more weighty newspapers such as the Times. “If you do news, you have to do serious news. No one has yet showed that news ‘lite’ works.

“We will not lead hour after hour with crime or missing person stories, which Sky does — which is perfectly proper for its audience. We will always be stronger on politics, business and current affairs.”

News 24 head Rachel Attwell adds: “We are not competing to be first because first doesn’t necessarily mean right. There will be occasions when we’ll hold back.”

Mosey also believes “the energy of the channel will be improved by changing the on-air look.”

News 24 now has a contemporary post-modern glass and chrome design and enough studio space for presenters to walk around.

Changing the set is the easy bit. The hard part is delivering “an intelligent broad agenda” in a celebrity-fixated culture.

The relaunch was prompted by a government-initiated report, carried out by ex-Financial Times editor Richard Lambert and published a year ago, lambasting News 24’s lack of originality.

Insiders blame that on the BBC. “When you create a news channel, you have to decide what you want it to be,” says one news vet. “Will it be a headline service or will it be event-driven? The BBC originally launched News 24 without a clear idea of what they wanted.

“It was second division, half-news, half-features, with no real, distinctive sense of what it was attempting to do.”

However, defining its more serious news edge does not solve the digital news channel’s main problem: It lives in the shadow of the pubcaster’s giant newsgathering machine for terrestrial TV and radio outlets.

With the traditional network bulletins still the primary focus of the global news team’s efforts, serving the needs of News 24 has often been an afterthought for BBC staff, and an irritating one at that.

Some top presenters and reporters would prefer not to be seen dead on it.

In contrast, Sky News’ dedicated staff serves its needs around the clock.

Initial reaction to the revamp has been skeptical, with some commentators failing to notice any improvement so far. But it is still early, and the BBC is attempting to turn News 24 into a distinctive service.

One of the revamped News 24’s innovations is the introduction of a thrice-daily “Fact File” in which journalist Nick Higham uses inhouse research to explain the big stories and put them into context.

Ironically, Higham, the pubcaster’s ex-arts and media correspondent, recently accused the BBC of running too many “insignificant and trivial” entertainment and sports stories in news bulletins.

“The one thing News 24 can do that Sky can’t is marshal the resources of a large team of specialist reporters,” a BBC correspondent says. “This means we can help our audience understand complex issues.”

The proof will be in the ratings. Sky News’ weekly reach is 4.9 million compared to News 24 at 4.3 million.

“Sky News is good,” concedes Mosey, “but you have to remember that it is much simpler running one news channel than running alongside all our other news output on the terrestrial channels and our other outlets, including radio and the Web.”

If News 24 is really to shine, perhaps the BBC needs to think hard about integrating it within the rest of its sprawling news empire, instead of operating it as a semi-autonomous unit. “The BBC structure doesn’t help,” says a rival.

For the sake of the good name of the BBC, and for those viewers seeking a different kind of TV news, News 24 cannot afford to fail a second time around.