What next for ITV News?

Sometime in the next year or so ITV is likely to embark on the biggest ever shake-up of its news operations. The great “masterplan”, as I shall call it, involves network news programmes on ITV, the rolling ITV News service on digital and, more significantly, the 13 UK regional news operations on the channel.

All three elements of ITV’s news output have had a rough time in the past five years – though, to be fair, there are signs of a fightback.

News at Ten is still recovering from the “News at When” scheduling fiasco – head-to-head it rarely beats the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News – and, although the Early Evening News on ITV performs pretty well, the BBC is, for the time being, the number one operation in network news.

The ITV News Channel – a vast improvement on the ITN News Channel, which preceded it – is still third in the rolling news pecking order after Sky and BBC 24.

Meanwhile, the picture for ITV regional news is even bleaker. So far this year ITV regional news programmes have been outperformed by their BBC equivalents in every region except in Ulster, Border, and Tyne Tees. The poorest performing regional news operation of all is in Granada’s original homeland, where the local news has a 13 per cent share against the BBC’s 31 per cent.

To make matters worse, all this news is costing the ITV companies an absolute fortune and their licences require them to keep on doing it.

It’s not surprising then that ITV have been planning some kind of integrated news operation ever since the Granada Carlton merger became a possibility.

Melvyn Bragg – ITV’s mouthpiece in the House of Lords – recently announced the network’s plan to create a “£100m news machine” in order to compete with the mighty BBC and Sky News operations.

This impressive figure of £100m is presumably reached by combining the annual cost of ITN’s news supply contract (approximately £35m) and the cost of all the ITV regional news operations, which I’m assuming comes to roughly £65m.

I may be a little cynical but I expect the real figure for total ITV news spend will probably be rather smaller – as the whole point of combining regional, national and international news, indeed the main point of an ITV merger, is to deliver “synergy” and save significant amounts of money.

Part of the masterplan is for ITV to eventually own its own news supplier.

Currently Carlton and Granada have a 40 per cent share of Independent Television News, which produces network news for ITV and also for Channel 4 and Five.

Under the new Communications Act, those ITV companies can buy out the other non-ITV shareholders, making ITN a de facto division of ITV.

The business case for all this seems to make perfect sense – at least for ITV. Sharing infrastructure, buildings, equipment and other resources should mean a better service for less money. But what are the journalistic implications? My understanding is that the plan is to offer ITV viewers a single coherent approach to local, national and international news. The argument goes that, in an increasingly fragmented market, ITV News needs a common and easily recognisable brand image to reverse the ratings decline.

Basically, they want to create a new ITV News company under the aegis of ITN, offering a coherent approach to local, national and international news. This is effectively what the BBC does right now.

So will the new integrated ITV News share a common editorial philosophy and on-screen look? Will there be a grand panjandrum of news with separate bosses for local, network and 24-hour news services? Where will it all be based? There’s already a well-advanced plan for London News Network – London’s ITV local news service – to move out of Granada’s offices and studios on London’s South Bank and into the ITN premises on Gray’s Inn Road.

But why should it stop there? In the US, Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns a number of local TV stations on the East Coast, runs local news operations in Pennsylvania out of Baltimore, which is a bit like running local news in Manchester from Southampton.

Satellite newsgathering technology and digital production methods mean it’s entirely possible to produce 13 different local news programmes from a single centralised production hub but it won’t work unless they do the basic regional newsgathering on location and in force.

Technology has yet to devise a sensible way to phase out the camera operator and television reporter.

This is easily the most politically sensitive of the three ingredients of the ITV News revolution. Already there are signs at LNN of staff resistance to the centralising hand of ITN.

Remember LNN is already jointly owned by Carlton and Granada, so in a sense it should be the easiest to integrate within a single network operation, yet there’s clearly some unhappiness at the thought.

So, while Carlton and Granada executives are all singing from the same hymn sheets at the moment, staff I know working in Carlton and Granada newsrooms around the country are worried they will lose their local character and independence both commercially and editorially in the interest of a centralised ITV.

Let’s face it, no one outside the M25 wants someone in Gray’s Inn Road calling all the shots.

For the ITV News Channel these changes are all good news and already the 24-hour digital service is making good use of regional reporters on a regular basis – and most of them seem happy for the opportunity.

Network news should also benefit from increased regional newsgathering power, but what about ITV regional newsrooms? They may end up at the bottom of the food chain – producing the goods for the terrestrial and digital networks in London before finally servicing their own local customers.

Each day of the Hutton Inquiry brings a new twist and revelation as the BBC’s journalism and the Government’s spinning comes under microscopic scrutiny.

There was a concerted attempt by ITV, Channel 4, Sky News and Five to have the Hutton Inquiry televised.

The 24-hour news operations in particular were licking their lips at the prospect of gavel-to-gavel coverage, hoping the Hutton Inquiry would liven up an otherwise quiet August.

Interestingly, the BBC didn’t join the action, though it has previously championed the cause of opening up judicial procedures to greater public scrutiny by allowing cameras into British courts.

In the end, the request was turned down – partly on the grounds that witnesses might feel intimidated in front of the cameras and also because Dr Kelly’s family had objected.

Undeterred by all this, Sky News decided to recreate the daily highlights of Hutton with transcripts and actors.

The effect is occasionally quite dramatic, though one spends a lot of time unconsciously judging the similarities, or lack of similarities, between the actors and the characters they play. The man who took on the role of Richard Sambrook looked more like a car auctioneer than a BBC executive.

It isn’t the first attempt at daily reconstructions of this kind, but it’s probably the most ambitious. It will be interesting to see if Sky News rolls out the technique for the trial of the year in October when the Soham murder case comes to court.  Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks Next week: Janice Turner

by Chris Shaw

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