Will Robert Peston's move from Sunday mornings to Wednesday nights work?
Has ITV admitted defeat in the political chat battle, wonders Ben Dowell? Or could there be some positives in its new slot?
ITV today confirmed speculation that Robert Peston’s Sunday morning current affairs show is to move to a new weekday slot, airing after ITV’s News at Ten.
Peston on Sunday is to become Peston, on Wednesday, when it returns this autumn, after what could be politely described as a mixed performance on Sunday mornings over the past two years.
"I could not be more pleased and excited that Peston on Sunday is moving to a Wednesday night slot, under the shortened name of Peston,” said Peston himself, arguably putting a brave face on the news.
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“It has always struck me as significant that PoS typically has double or more viewers for its 10:15pm repeat than for its live broadcast at 10am, so I wanted to explore a possible move to first transmission in the evening, and it then seemed natural to change the broadcast day to Wednesday – because this is often the biggest political day of the week, and includes Prime Ministers' Questions.
"I am immensely proud of what we have created at Peston on Sunday. Peston, in its new slot, will retain its blend of agenda-setting interviews, digital interaction with the audience, cutting-edge graphical analysis, informality and fun, with some exciting new elements.
"There is no more important time to be challenging our leaders and influencers on the issues that matter to ITV's viewers – with the UK facing the most momentous political choices for a generation, on Brexit, on how to fund and run vital public services, on how to solve the housing crisis, on how to end the record-breaking stagnation of living standards.”
Peston’s observations on the ratings are definitely correct, but they are slightly selective. When Peston on Sunday launched in May 2016, ITV signalled very clearly that it was competing with the Andrew Marr show on the BBC, and a heated PR battle ensued, with briefing and counter briefing from both productions teams, professionals who are well versed in the dark arts used in the political sphere that is their speciality.
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Rob Burley, Andrew Marr’s producer, also went public in the discussion, questioning the appeal of Peston and insisting his show was in “pole position".
And Burley wasn’t wrong. Following Peston's dramatic defection from the BBC in 2015 for a reputed £400,000 pay packet, PoS started slowly in 2016, drawing an average of 167,000 viewers at 10am compared with Marr’s 1.59 million an hour earlier – nearly a tenfold difference.
Since then Peston on Sunday has continued to struggle and the ratings have hovered around the same margin. The last edition of the series, on Sunday 27th May, averaged 170,000 viewers between 10am and 11am, an audience share of 3.1%.
By contrast The Andrew Marr Show on the same morning, airing over the 9am hour, averaged 1.45 million viewers with a share of 25.8%.
In fact, as RadioTimes.com revealed last year, things were so bad for Peston that the editor of Today allegedly held talks with him about a possible move to the Radio 4 show.
So ITV’s Director of News and Current Affairs Michael Jeremy may claim that Peston's Sunday show “is the most engaging and interesting political interview programme on television” but the viewers, it seems, simply don’t agree. The move must be partly seen as a blow for Peston and a tacit admission of defeat in the ratings war with Marr.
So what went wrong and can it be put right?
It has long been believed in TV circles that ITV has something of a credibility problem when it comes to big-hitting political shows – certainly when compared with the BBC. And Peston’s offering has suffered from airing after Marr’s. Politically-minded TV viewers who watched Marr simply didn’t stay tuned in for more rumination over the croissants and orange juice in sufficient numbers.
The potential for saturation is especially relevant give that the news agenda on Sunday is not as exciting as it used to be. Since the decline in newspaper circulation, and the resources available to newspapers, the scoop count has dropped off in recent years, with social media, bloggers and online journalists breaking many of the important stories – those that aren't already controlled by the swelling ranks of PR and spin doctors – at other times.
“Sunday mornings isn’t as interesting a time for political junkies as it used to be,” one current affairs producer tells me. "A lot more happens in the week."
ITV will be hoping that the Wednesday slot, on the same day as Prime Minister’s Questions, will provide enough meat and drink to galvanise Peston, still a highly respected journalist.
And Peston’s producers are hoping they will attract a better calibre of guest live on Wednesday evenings. It simply didn’t make sense to political spin doctors, who want their message heard, to choose Peston on Sunday over Andrew Marr, a show with ten times the viewership.
They may think again on Wednesday nights, especially since their closest competitor, BBC2's Newsnight, has a reputation for giving politicians a hard time.
And with the ongoing rows around Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump's Twitter feed and everything else on the news agenda, at least Peston on Wednesday won't be short of things to talk about.
Peston will start airing on Wednesday nights on ITV in the autumn