Move over Tyson Fury, here comes a real bout on the box. This is the week that two broadcasting heavyweights start slugging it out, after months of training, in the battle to be the undisputed champion of the 10pm news. On ITV the reinvention of News at Ten with new host Tom Bradby takes its next great leap forward with the arrival of (ex) BBC star Robert Peston as political editor. Meanwhile, over at the BBC, its flagship TV news programme – also known internally as “the Ten” – gets a 15-minute extension, billed by the BBC as a response to audience demand for more “news analysis and explanation”.
So is this just the latest twist in the competitive battle between the two venerable news programmes or is there more to it? In fact, of the rival broadcasters’ moves in respect of their top news bulletins, ITV’s is by far the more radical – although it might well be the BBC’s that has the most dramatic consequences.
The relaunch of ITV News at Ten with a single presenter, 48-year-old former royal correspondent and latterly political editor Tom Bradby, is clearly intended to make it a very different sort of programme. In an interview I did with him for The Media Show on Radio 4 at the end of last year, Bradby said he wanted to put the programme back on the map. ITV’s News at Ten, he said, “was not as central to public life as it was when I started back in the 1990s”. He said he wanted it to become “The Times of broadcasting”, to be “more analytical” and offer viewers more “context, intelligence and analysis”.
And above all, of course, to get noticed – hence the poaching of Robert Peston from the BBC. “He is one of the most thoughtful and interesting minds out there… if there’s a big political story I want to see what Robert Peston wants to say,” said Bradby. And the hope, of course, is that audiences will think the same.
But the broader message couldn’t have been clearer: ITV News at Ten – whose ratings had settled down to roughly half those of its BBC rival – was aiming to learn from both Channel 4 News and Newsnight. In other words, to take on the BBC by going up-market. Indeed, in the week of my interview with him, the programme devoted lengthy slots to a story about Iran’s nuclear capability. Throw in a new, deliberately conversational presenter style – modelled explicitly on the great American news anchors of yore – and it adds up to a pretty significant move away from News at Ten as it used to be.
Very little of which has gone down well with some of Bradby’s ITV colleagues, who fear, some out-of-joint noses notwithstanding, a further decline in their flagship programme’s ratings. They suspect some ITV viewers who are used to a more traditional, fast-moving, more tabloid approach may lose interest, while BBC viewers already used to more analysis and context will stay where they are.
However, with Bradby, Peston and Allegra Stratton – Newsnight’s political editor, also poached from the BBC – joining as national editor, and a new on-air look due in spring, ITV is definitely, as they say, going for it.
The BBC’s move to extend its 10pm news, meanwhile, appears at first sight to be little more than tinkering. No radical change to content or format, rather just more of the same – an additional five minutes or so of national and international news and around another seven of nations and regions. “The news bulletin will now have even more scope for considered and in-depth takes on the most significant news of the day,” said the BBC’s controller of daily news programmes, Gavin Allen.
And all driven, according to the BBC, by audience demand. When pressed, the BBC’s evidence for that stems from the fact that during a five-month period in the lead-up to last year’s general election (in which the 10pm BBC News was extended by 15 minutes most evenings), viewers stayed with it and didn’t switch off. The BBC also says it has private audience research showing people want “authority”, “depth” and “analysis” at that time of night – although there’s no direct evidence of people clamouring for more of it. So altogether, hardly radical at all.
I understand the original idea came from BBC director of news James Harding, who wanted a complete makeover of the evening news on BBC1. With a brand-new news hour running from 10pm to 11pm, encompassing national, international, nations’ and regions’ news whose second half-hour had more current affairs content, this would have been radical indeed.
For a start it would have required a pretty thorough rejig of BBC1’s evening schedules and, critically, would have called into question the position of weekday current-affairs stalwart Newsnight at 10.30pm on BBC2. Various options were looked at, including the idea that Newsnight might run either much earlier in the evening – say at 8pm, which would not, I imagine, have gone down especially well over at BBC2 – or much later, say at 11pm, as a more discursive, after-dark-style programme.
But as so often happens at the BBC, which finds radical options very hard to deal with, months of internal debate saw the really bold options talked out by stakeholders with too much to lose. In terms of what licence-payers want and need that might be the right outcome, but it leaves behind the BBC’s bureaucratic imperative to be seen to do something. Which is how we get to the BBC’s seemingly rather unadventurous plan to extend the current 10pm BBC News.
But here’s the rub. By extending it in this way, questions still persist about BBC2’s Newsnight, which will now overlap its BBC1 sibling by fully 15 minutes. Internal estimates suggest that could cost Newsnight between 10 and 15 per cent of its audience (which in November 2015 stood at a weekly average of 661,000), as well as creating considerable disruption for viewers who might want to watch the whole of the new 10pm BBC News on BBC1 as well as Newsnight.
None of which is ideal for a programme still recovering from its Jimmy Savile debacle and the loss of long-term host Jeremy Paxman. In fairness, Newsnight’s audience – which has declined from a weekly average of 917,000 in November 2008 – has stabilised. And editorially the programme has chalked up some notable recent successes, such as its coverage of Kids Company, Government plans to change tax credits, bullying in the Conservative Party and the Paris atrocities.
Nevertheless a 15-minute overlap with the 10pm BBC News on BBC1 will, albeit unintentionally, leave Newsnight facing big questions about its future. One option that’s been discussed is to run it on a 15-minute delay on the BBC News channel, although that too would be fraught.
And then there’s what to do about the ever-popular Question Time, which follows the 10pm BBC News on BBC1 on Thursday evenings, and now doesn’t finish until 11.45pm. And what about Andrew Neil’s The Week, which has been pushed even later still?
Which is why a BBC bureaucratic fudge that no one really wanted could very easily end up having rather more significant consequences than ITV’s much more radical move – whether or not it works out in the end.
Steve Hewlett is a writer and broadcaster. He presents The Media Show on Radio 4