How many programmes are relaunched on the basis of the set and presenter? The relative merits of Top Gear aren’t discussed in terms of the hangar it occupies. Jonathan Ross doesn’t find himself answering for the colour of his furniture.
Of course, those programmes can be quietly dispensed with when they begin to pall. The news is one of those things you still have to do.
So what is the new Five News like? Five has always tried to play down its prime-time programme, but if you judge it by its biggest competitive slot, then it’s the 7pm show that is the one to watch.
So how does the competition shape up? If you want popular, the couch to beat is piloted by Adrian Chiles and pals at the One Show. If you want newsiness, the chair in broadcast journalism is retained by Jon Snow and colleagues at Channel 4 News.
Not popular or serious? Now there’s a problem. Soap viewers can go to Emmerdale Light, factual to BBC1. Hard news to Channel 4. There may well be a place in the middle for soap-sodden Chilesophobes, who are willing to suspend disbelief long enough to accept that Britain’s most banned driver is the most important thing to happen on a Monday night. There were 400,000 of them on opening night.
There’s lots of professionalism and competence on display. Natasha Kaplinsky is a professional, competent broadcaster. But the decision to hire her sent out a very different message to the one sent by hiring, say, Evan Davis, at Radio 4’s Today. It brought a lot of ‘free’publicity on the back of the cheque Five wrote.
But when CBS News pulled off an even bigger coup, appointing America’s best-loved morning broadcaster Katie Couric to read its ailing news, that got a lot of free media too. Couric even took a pay cut. The appointment also brought a modest uplift in viewers as people sampled the show. It hasn’t lasted.
The new Five News has not sold itself on reinventing journalism, which is a shame. If you look at the difference between Top Gear and Fifth Gear you can see what a really radical reinterpretation of a car show looks like in contrast to a purely professional and competent one.
The biggest problem with modern broadcast journalism isn’t with presenters and sets. They can be hired and built to order. The problem is with the stuff being poured into the programmes. The culture and idioms of television news overpower most attempts to shift them.
Reporters and producers work in a business whose lingua franca too often remains terse, urgent and important. All the style guides in the world can’t knock that out of you. And the presence of good reporters and good pieces in programmes only serves to highlight the poor and unsatisfactory.
Live news programmes are far less consistent than almost any other genre on TV. And that is hard to fight against.
Ultimately, my problem with Five News is that Kaplinsky is smarter than the scripts she reads. Are her friends watching at 7pm when she’s not on? TV news still struggles to understand that you can be clever without being highbrow, and informative without being worthy.
There are talented people behind the new Five News, but that talent is being sacrificed on the altar of professionalism. When Richard Hammond is presenting Horizon it’s time to recognise that television has moved a long way on. Arguably, news on television could do with less perfection and more passion.
Kaplinsky managed to help make something as staid and unimaginative as ballroom dancing popular. Maybe she could do that for the news.
Adrian Monck is a professor of journalism at City University London