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Thursday, October 22, 1998 Published at 12:39 GMT 13:39 UK

UK Politics

News At Ten chiefs defend move plans

And finally - time for a change?

ITV chiefs have explained how they hope to attract more viewers to their flagship news bulletin as they appeared before MPs to justify controversial plans to move the News At Ten.

They want to shift the show to 6.30pm, with another, half-hour news programme at 11pm.

The ITV bosses said the switch would allow them to boost coverage of events in America, provide more analysis of events in the Houses of Parliament and look ahead to the next day's news by picking up on newspaper headlines.

They also argued an 11pm bulletin could include more sporting footage, because at present they are barred from showing clips if the event is already being televised on another channel.

Getting younger

The channel is aiming to boost its news audience, winning younger and more upmarket viewers and competing better against the BBC with the two later programmes.

Bosses have already informed the Independent Television Commission of their plans and expect a decision at the end of the month.

[ image: We want to entice people to stay up, says Richard Eyre]
We want to entice people to stay up, says Richard Eyre
Some MPs, including the prime minister, want the programme to remain at its current time.

ITV believes that if News at Ten is moved, films with adult themes will no longer have to be shown in two halves around either side of the bulletin to conform with the 9pm watershed.

The programme has seen a 27% drop in its audience over the first five months of this year and channel bosses want to arrest the decline.

Bed-time habits

Questioned closely by MPs sceptical about moving the News At Ten, ITV Chairman Leslie Hill said the popularity of the BBC's 6pm bulletin demonstrated that early evening was a good time for viewers.

[ image: Leslie Hill: Aiming for larger audiences]
Leslie Hill: Aiming for larger audiences
The move would enable them to be more flexible and innovative in drama and comedy, he added.

Culture Committee chairman Gerald Kaufman pointed out that figures for the BBC's 6pm news were also falling.

He questioned whether the nation's habit of going to bed after the News At Ten could be changed. The biggest single drop of the entire viewing day comes at 11pm, he pointed out.

ITV Chief Executive Richard Eyre said: "People don't have fixed bed-times. They move them back and forward according to what's on the box."

He said ITV wanted to entice people to stay up a little longer.

Ten o'clock turn-off

Coverage could be improved and spending would be increased, said Mr Eyre.

Mr Hill blamed alternatives such as Channel 5, cable and satellite television and both BBC Two and Channel 4 providing strong rival programmes at the same time for people switching off at 10pm.

He said the proposal was not just to move the 10pm slot to 11pm, but the combination of the 6.30 and 11pm bulletins would bring a larger audience overall.

Mr Kaufman said every statistic available showed audiences would drop and accused the executives of planning the changes "on a hope or a hunch", deliberately expecting a fall-off in audiences.

Mr Eyre replied they had used models and statisticians, and believed that over time numbers would go back up.

'And finally - we're sad'

ITN Chief Executive Stuart Purvis, quizzed on his personal feelings about the programme, admitted he had enormous emotional ties to it and would be sad to see it go.

But professionally the reasons for moving it were right, he went on. The reality was, Mr Purvis admitted, that ITN would be less competitive at night but more competitive in the early evening.

He was supported in that view by ITN Chairman Mark Wood and Editor-in-Chief Richard Tait.

Sir George Russell, former Chairman of ITN and the ITC, argued News At Ten should stay where it is as there were no good commercial or quality reasons to move it. ITV would not gain more upmarket viewers, he said.

Main News At Ten presenter Trevor Macdonald backs the changes, while other senior reporters at ITN including Political Editor Michael Brunson, the bulletin's founder Sir Alastair Burnet and veteran reporter Sandy Gall are all thought to be against the switch.

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