Integration is the name of the game at ITV. The merger of Granada and Carlton is pretty much a foregone conclusion, but it seems as though they’re already forging ahead with new plans for a more centralised and cost-efficient way of running their network and regional news.
Granada has recently conducted a full-scale review of all its news operations. One suggestion is that newsgathering and news production resources around the UK could be managed from a central hub -probably not based in London. The other is that ITV regional newsrooms and ITN – its network news provider – should work much more closely together and not duplicate coverage. The idea is to deliver major savings to a future "Granarlton" plc, which would be paying for both services anyway.
A clue to the future can be seen on the recently-relaunched ITV News Channel, now wholly-owned by ITV. Six months ago, few people would have put any money on the survival of Britain’s third domestic rolling news service, especially after the humiliating failure of the ITV Sport Channel, but it not only survived that debacle but has returned to our screens in a new and improved form.
One of the more interesting innovations is that ITV regional reporters now contribute to a Nationwide-style round-up each weekday night. It’s not unlike the Friday night BBC regional news magazine that follows the Six O’Clock News, but it’s much more surprising to see it on ITV.
The potential advantages of getting ITN and the regional ITV news operations to co-operate more were clearly seen during ITV’s coverage of the firemen’s strike, when regular inserts from across the UK gave a truly national picture.
Of course, there’s a good public relations angle here. Given the widespread suspicion that a single ITV will deliberately run down costly regional operations, you can see why ITV is keen to emphasise its continued commitment to regionality at the moment – especially in news. It also helps that BBC News 24 was criticised in an independent review last month for failing to exploit its regional opportunities. PR, better coverage and cost-cutting opportunities explain why the "integration" strategy for news is being enthusiastically orchestrated by the ITV Network Centre, conveniently based two floors above ITN at its headquarters in Grays Inn Road.
In the past, there has been little love lost between ITN and the likes of Anglia News, Calendar and London Tonight. Not so long ago, many regional heads of ITV News preferred to sell their exclusive pictures to Sky or Channel Five News, rather than hand them over gratis to ITN.
This obviously didn’t make much commercial sense, especially as Granada and Carlton ran four-fifths of ITV’s regional news operations.
So where’s this co-operation going to lead ? And why limit it to two-and-a-half hours of television on a little-watched digital news channel? The logical conclusion is for ITN’s domestic operations to actually merge in some form with ITV’s regional news services – the thinking is that this could work as well on News at Ten as it does on the ITV News Channel. One thing that isn’t very clear right now is who would actually manage this "nationwide" news operation – ITN or "Granarlton" ?
There HAS always been a fashion for showing off your technology in TV news. I recall the first electronic graphics device at ITN. It was called VT80 – developed, as the name suggests, way back in 1980. Out went the cut-and-paste cardboard maps and in came slightly clunky, electronically generated ones. The really exciting thing about VT80 was that you could actually animate and move things. We were soon stretching the technology beyond its natural capabilities and ordering up complex animations. One weekend, I was producing a report about a dramatic helicopter rescue of some seamen marooned on an arctic ice floe. We had no pictures so we resorted to library ice packs, a map and a very elaborate VT80 graphic. The end product resembled a cross between Space Invaders and Captain Pugwash. Not a great success. Now the fashion is for bigger and better monitors and screens. First came the plasma widescreen – a must for any modern news studio -then the back projection screen (even bigger) and then the video wall (see Sky News and Channel 4 News). Now Sky not only has a video wall but also a video floor. Very fancy indeed. The problem with this particular technology fad is that the bigger the background, the smaller the person appears. Sometimes the Sky presenters are little more than grey-suited specks in a vast, animated electronic desert. I say bring back Letraset and the sandpit.
British television journalists often look enviously across the Atlantic at the kind of courtroom access enjoyed by their American colleagues. There’s something about a high profile trial on camera that really excites the hack and the viewer alike. The OJ Simpson case in LA and the trial of British nanny Louise Woodward in Boston were two particularly dramatic news events, especially when we were able to watch them live. Sky News got some of its biggest ever audiences during the Woodward trial and I can still remember the young woman howling in anguish as the jury first declared her guilty.
Court TV, the US cable channel which first brought regular, live court coverage to American TV screens, understood the sheer tension of real-life trials captured on camera. Here, in old-fashioned Blighty, we have to make do with a few courtroom sketches and verbal accounts from the steps outside.
Now the Americans have come up with something even more dramatic: courtroom coverage with moving cameras. Until now, the video cameras in US courtrooms have been virtually locked off in a wide shot, unable to zoom in for reactions or close ups of defendants, witnesses or the judge. But now, in California (where else?), full multi-camera outside broadcasts units are being permitted into some of the state’s courts.
It’s the brainchild of TV crime supremo Dick Wolf, the man behind America’s longest-running crime drama, Law & Order. Wolf has now turned his attention to the factual arena and has produced a new series of trial documentaries which are shot like drama but are, in fact, real cases with real defendants, witnesses, judges and juries. The results are absolutely compelling.
Only the juries are kept out of the picture. The rest of the unfolding trial is captured in a gripping dramatic style. The series is called Crime and Punishment and it’s coming to British screens next month.
Just imagine if the Old Bailey trial of Maxine Carr and Ian Huntley got the full Dick Wolf treatment. It’s inconceivable, really,but would it actually do any damage to British justice or society if it was on camera ? I don’t think so.
Chris Shaw is senior programme
controller at Channel Five. He’ll be back in four weeks
Next week: Bill Hagerty