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Wednesday, 4 October, 2000, 09:30 GMT 10:30 UK
Moving the news: Why does 60 minutes matter?

The BBC and ITN are embroiled in a battle over which one of them will broadcast their main evening news at 10pm. But with a wealth of 24-hour rolling news channels on offer, are the concerns justified?

There's nothing new about TV chiefs juggling schedules in an effort to steal a march on their rivals.

But the fallout is seldom as bad as when the shift in question concerns a news programme.

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In August, BBC director general Greg Dyke decided to move into the 10pm slot vacated by ITN.

ITN is now moving back from 11pm into that same slot - long considered a prime time for news programmes.

While the decision is only a few hours old, the main concern of many is the effect ITV's compromise with the ITC will have on viewer choice - and whether it will lead to the BBC abandoning its plan to move the Nine O'Clock.

But are the concerns justified?

And with the three dedicated news channels available to satellite and digital viewers, do we need news on mainstream channels?

Middle ranking

In terms of audience popularity, news programmes come some way down the ratings list.

The Nine O'Clock News regularly draws an audience of about five million - more than ITV's Nightly News at 11pm, but less than BBC's Six O'Clock News.

Average audiences April 2000 (& % share)
BBC Nine O'Clock News - 5.07m (21.2%)
ITV Nightly News - 3.43m (27.1%)
Channel 4 News - 0.91m (4.5%)
Channel 5 News - 0.39m (2.1%)
Source: Barb
The figures pale in comparison to other prime-time programmes, such as Coronation Street and EastEnders, which regularly get audiences in excess of 12 million. However, news is widely seen as a cornerstone of any quality broadcaster.

Critics of Mr Dyke's decision to move the BBC's news said that it smacked of dumbing down because pushing the programme back would free-up more time for entertainment and drama earlier in the evening - exactly the reason why ITN's News at Ten was forced to move in the first place.

But Mr Dyke said that he expected a bigger audience for news at 10pm, pointing to the fact that ITN's News at Ten was more popular than the BBC's Nine O'Clock News.

Perfectly timed

Former News at Ten editor David Mannion, said that journalistically, 10pm remains the perfect time for a news programme.

Often, it coincides with crucial votes in Parliament and it is well timed to pick up events in the United States.

"The hour makes all the difference. You can get to grips with an awful lot more in that time," he said.

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"My old editor at ITN used to say the Nine O'Clock News was today's news but the 10 O'Clock programme was projecting forward to tomorrow."

But Mr Mannion, now a media consultant, also saw some truth in the dumbing down argument.

"It's difficult to argue with the fact that news is moving to the outer reaches of prime time."

The argument that "appointment" news programmes such as the Nine O'Clock News, have been usurped by 24-hour rolling news stations, is a misnomer, he added.

Different type of TV news

"They are very different animals. These 24-hour channels specialise in rolling news and breaking news, [but have] little time to construct a programme about the day that can reflect on the events of what has been happening.

"It's about allowing strong journalism to flow, rather than just the straightforward reporting."

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In that sense "appointment" news programmes are key to a democratic and accountable Britain, stressed Mr Mannion.

In audience terms, the rolling news stations available on cable, satellite and digital platforms, have a long way to go.

Latest figures show Sky News averaged a 0.3% audience share over the past year, while BBC News 24 and CNN each got 0.1%. By comparison, the Nine O'Clock News averages 20% of total audience share.

Some critics claim the debate over TV news scheduling is mostly academic - a concern of "media types" and the "chattering classes" out of proportion to the viewing habits of the wider public.

In fact, research by the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board, shows the Nine O'Clock News draws an equal share of audience across the class board.

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