A televisual feast of fact

Stewart Purvis’s decision to quit ITN after 30 years at the company really does mark the end of an era. For the past decade-and-a-half Purvis has in effect been Mr ITN – chief executive, editor-in-chief and, before that, the man in charge of Channel 4 News and News at Ten. His departure – apparently planned sometime ago – follows on from two other senior ITN retirements.

Richard Tait, the previous editor-in-chief, and Nigel Dacre, the former editor of ITV News, have both resigned within the past year.

Purvis’s departure effectively completes a regime change at ITN at an interesting point in the organisation’s history. Over the next year or two, ITN could become a wholly owned subsidiary of a single ITV – a very different beast from the stand-alone news supplier that Stewart developed over the past 15 years.

David Mannion, editor of ITV News and another ITN old-timer, took exception to my last Medialand column. Among other things that annoyed him was my claim that ITV had adopted a redtop news agenda.

He said that my evidence was extremely selective, but can one be truly scientific about these things. And what’s wrong with being tabloid anyway?

Well it so happened that 9 June was one of those rare days when the tabloid and broadsheet newspapers split perfectly over the what constituted the big story of the day.

Every single tabloid splashed on Ian Huntley’s attempted suicide at Woodhill Prison near Milton Keynes. Every single broadsheet decided that Chancellor Gordon Brown’s statement on the euro was more important.

I thought this might be the perfect opportunity to test just how different television news programmes ranked on the tabloid-broadsheet scale.

At great personal pain, I sat down to watch video recordings of all the main news bulletins on terrestrial television that day – starting with Five News on my own channel at 5.30pm, then over to BBC One for the Six O’Clock News, followed immediately by ITV’s Early Evening News, Channel 4 News, then the BBC One Ten O’Clock News, ITV’s News at Ten and, finally, Newsnight on BBC Two.

I can’t say it was the most exciting evening of my life, but here are my findings.

Of all the channels, only ITV went down the tabloid route, choosing to lead on the suicide rather than the politics. Both News at Ten and the Early Evening News had two packages on the Huntley saga before moving on to the euro, while all the other channels, including Five, led on the Chancellor’s statement.

However, as it says in the Karma Sutra, position isn’t everything. Duration can be important too.

With a stopwatch in hand I looked at how much time each programme devoted to the euro and worked out exactly what percentage of editorial running time they felt it was worth.

In descending order these are the results of my exclusive survey:

Newsnight, not surprisingly, came out top of the serious-minded league, devoting a massive 50 minutes and 40 seconds, or 97.5 per cent of its running time, to the euro and a measly 15 seconds to the Huntley saga.
The BBC’s Ten O’Clock News ran five individual reporter packages, plus an interview with the Chancellor. This comprehensive reportage took up 77 per cent of the programme.
Next came Channel 4 News, with an extended edition of its main evening news – 36-and-a-half-minutes of euro debate, discussion and reporting – or 63 per cent of the show.
Although ITV’s News at Ten may not have led on the euro, it did devote eight minutes to the subject or 48 per cent of the show. Incidentally, it also spent five minutes or 30 per cent of the programme on Huntley.
Of the early, evening news programmes, Five News devoted the highest proportion of airtime to the euro – 45 per cent or roughly nine minutes.
The ITV Early Evening News came next with 10 minutes and 40 seconds or 43 per cent of its show.
And the programme that devoted least of its running time to this story was the BBC Six O’Clock News. A measly 11 minutes or 39 per cent of the programme.

So ITV may have had the most tabloid agenda but it’s the BBC’s Six O’Clock News that devoted the smallest proportion of its airtime to the big, significant story of the day.

I’m not sure exactly what that proves, except that both BBC and ITV news have tabloid impulses, but then again both devoted around 40 per cent of their editorial space – much more than any broadsheet – to the significant but deadly dull euro announcement.

Reports of the death of serious news on television maybe a little premature.

‘Instant history” is the phrase used to describe the growing vogue for “fast-turnaround” documentaries on big events like September 11 or the fall of Kabul.

Newspapers and book publishers have been doing instant books and special supplements for years but television is a relatively recent convert to the rapid-response documentary.

There have been two “instant history” programmes on the war in Iraq already. First out of the trap was Channel 4 with Battle Station Iraq quickly followed by BBC Two’s seven part series Fighting the War.

This was modestly described in the Radio Times by its producers as a cross between Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Spielberg’s Band of Brothers.

Despite the hype, viewing figures have been a bit disappointing. I blame 24-hour news, which saturated the television market for war and ensured that some of the most extraordinary images of the war were seen as they happened including the “shock and awe” bombardment of the Iraqi captial, Baghdad.

Live and extensive coverage of this sort is taking the thrill and energy out of “instant history” documentaries.

It’s a bit like the plight of football highlights now that live premiership games are on all the time. If you’re really keen you watch it live and if you’re just a casual fan then you can’t really be arsed to revisit it after the event.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

Next week: Bill Hagerty

Chris Shaw

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