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Sunday, 15 October, 2000, 15:44 GMT
Have I got moves for you?
michael buerk
Where else on BBC1 do you find a man in a suit talking straight to camera?
By BBC Arts & Media Correspondent Nick Higham

There are two ways of looking at the BBC's decision to move its Nine O'Clock News to 2200, six nights a week from Monday.

On one view it is a tactical masterstroke: the BBC has wrong-footed ITV by pre-empting the commercial channel's own decision to move its Nightly News from 2300 to 2200 next January.

It clears the schedule in the middle of the evening on BBC One for ratings-winning popular comedy and drama.

And it reinforces the BBC's claim to offer superior public service: while ITV is guaranteeing to run its Nightly News at 2200 on only three nights a week, the BBC is committing to the slot every night except Saturday.

Spoiling exercise

On another view, it is a cynical spoiling exercise in which the BBC has opted to marginalise its news, running the programme at a time when there are fewer people available to watch and when on three nights a week it will clash with ITV's offering, depriving viewers of choice.

peter salmon
Salmon: Unhappy with the Nine
In the process the BBC has revealed its real agenda - to turn BBC One into a dumbed-down populist clone of ITV - and unwisely alienated government ministers who are now more determined than ever to strip the BBC's board of governors of their independence, and subordinate them to a new super-regulator responsible for both the BBC and commercial broadcasting.

The BBC clearly hopes to get a bigger audience at 2100 than it used to.

It has devised a schedule for the coming weeks packed with popular comedies like One Foot In The Grave, The Royle Family, Men Behaving Badly and Have I Got News For You.

The corporation has countered some of the accusations of dumbing down by promising that the Ten O'Clock News will serve up exactly the same recipe as the Nine.

chris smith
Smith: 'Just another licence fee payer'

But the former controller of BBC One, Peter Salmon, was always unhappy with "the Nine", seeing it as rather too high-minded and unattractive to viewers.

There have been discussions about softening it to be more appealing without sacrificing authority or the range of stories.

It is a difficult balancing act, and attempting it with the Nine O'Clock News would have been controversial.

One consequence of the move to 2200 is that any plans to tinker with the style or substance of the programme have gone on the back burner

The problem remains, though, that news programmes generally stick out like a sore thumb on popular TV channels.

Where else on BBC One (or on ITV, for that matter) do you find a man in a suit talking straight to camera?

One question now is how ITV will respond.

Collision course

It might decide to try and leave its news at 2300, running popular programmes at 2200 in the hopes of trouncing BBC One in the ratings.

But that would be a difficult idea to sell to the regulator, the Independent Television Commission (ITC).

A date had been set for a court challenge by ITV to the ITC's power to dictate a new time for the news.

In the event a compromise was thrashed out in September, under which ITV undertook to move the programme to 2200 on Mondays to Thursdays, but with the flexibility to schedule it at a different time on one of those nights if it wanted.

So perhaps the network will simply heave a sigh of relief that on those nights when it is forced to run the news at 2200 its competition is nothing more threatening than another news programme.

When the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, criticised the BBC's decision to rush forward the move of its news, the corporation's chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, dismissed his views as those of just another licence fee payer.

Such a snub suggests the BBC governors believe they have already lost the argument against being subordinated to a new regulator, and are no longer worried what Chris Smith thinks.

But it is worth asking whether a super-regulator would have been able to prevent the Great News At Ten Clash anyway.

Would a future regulator really have the necessary powers to dictate to both the BBC and ITV when they should schedule their news?

Somehow I doubt it.

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See also:

13 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Goodbye Nine O'clock News
04 Oct 00 | Entertainment
Meldrew leads BBC ratings charge
03 Oct 00 | UK
BBC news move 'senseless'
03 Oct 00 | UK
BBC news move to go ahead
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