Just over 190 years ago, a crowd of 3,000 handloom weavers and their supporters surrounded a mill in Chatterton in east Lancashire, wanting to destroy the power looms inside that had devastated their traditional livelihoods. The military confronting them read the Riot Act and then opened fire, killing six people. The industrial revolution marched onwards and the handloom weavers disappeared – part of the collateral damage.
As the technological revolution of the 21st century careers along at breakneck speed, there’ll be no crowds of angry baby boomers gathering outside the ITN building on London’s Gray’s Inn Road to protest about the moving of News at Ten to 10.30pm each weekday evening for the next eight weeks to make room for a new half-hour entertainment show. But there will be plenty of disappointment among those who have a well-established habit of consuming news at a regular time on a traditional TV set. Unfortunately for those of us in the TV news business, they are a declining band.
I was in the hot seat the last time this happened, in 1999. The hallowed News at Ten was abolished, to be replaced by the ITV Nightly News at 11pm – fronted by yours truly. The feeling in ITN at the time was one of seismic shock. Thirty years of dominance and heritage down the plughole. (Now, given all the shunting around of the past few years, I suspect the reaction is more one of resignation than shock.)
A rollercoaster two years later and it was all over. A weakened News at Ten came back, but the BBC had moved in and established the domination of the slot that still holds today. Tellingly, though, that 11pm bulletin got figures of 3.5 million in 1999. Way down on the old News at Ten figures – but more than the BBC’s ten o’clock news usually gets now. And in those declining figures perhaps lies the clue to ITV’s current thinking.
Back in the late 90s, moving News at Ten was a nakedly commercial experiment – allowing ITV to run post-watershed films uninterrupted (apart from advertising) from
9pm until 11pm. Now it may well be a necessity, because all news broadcasters are competing for a diminishing pool of viewers. A whole generation is growing up consuming their news – if they even do that – digitally, on demand and through social media and mobile video viewing.
A stark study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism last year laid out the scale of the challenge: “The decline in viewing among younger people is far more pronounced both for television viewing in general and for television news specifically, meaning that the loyalty and habits of older viewers prop up overall viewing figures and risk obscuring the fact that television news is rapidly losing touch with much of the population.” The problem for us all is that there is no magic bullet. So many forms of delivery and distribution – but which one will prevail? And as for making any money out of it..!
Particularly galling for us trained and experienced journalists in these confusing and testing times is that we’re there to explain to an even more confused audience. We’re not “fake news”, or “mainstream media”. We’re just trying to deliver the facts, test the arguments, sniff out the bull***t and deliver it in digestible programmes. But I fear that battle may be lost.
As a baby boomer, I badgered my father in the blisteringly hot summer of 1967 to let me watch the first ever News at Ten go out, presented by the legendary Alastair Burnet and Andrew Gardner with their feet in buckets of water because there was no air conditioning. But very few modern nine- (or 19-) year-olds are watching linear TV news programmes now.
That’s why ITV might be moving News at Ten not just because they want to – but because they have to.