Moving news

Television - Andrew Billen on the changing face of the BBC

Next to the multiplication of BBC TV into seven, it may have looked like a sideshow. I suspect that Greg Dyke's announcement, at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, of the move of BBC1's main news bulletin from 9pm to 10pm was highly significant, an index of the anxiety now clouding the future of public service broadcasting. In the end - say, a decade or so from now - what remains of the statutory public service remit may well be simply the provision of free, impartial news at prime time. For me, the most chilling sentence in the director general's MacTaggart lecture was, therefore: "Currently, in digital homes, audience share for the Nine O'Clock News often falls below 10 per cent."

The main reason for the move to ten, Dyke said, was the hope that more people would watch it. In the competition for audiences, 10pm was a less tough time than the start of the watershed. But by the next morning, in his question-and-answer session with Kirsty Wark, the aspiration was already waning. The success of the new bulletin would be assessed by comparing its ratings against the "projections" for the (declining) ratings of the nine o'clock version. Dyke also admitted that, so far, he had no one-hour dramas ready to fill the 9pm slot. There is also the Panorama problem. Dyke has been bullied into keeping it on BBC1, but its 10pm slot is now spoken for and, presumably, it will not play against Newsnight. Watch out for a stunted 30-minute version placed where it will do least damage.

What surprises me about this gloomy, shifty discussion of news programming is how little people consider why it has become, over the course of a decade, such a ratings calamity. With more competition, there will be fewer viewers for any single bulletin, but Britain is the greatest newspaper-reading nation in the world, the home of Radio 5 Live and three indigenous rolling news TV stations. If people are ceasing to watch the best resources news shows of all, maybe there is something wrong with them. The question was raised at the festival in a small, jovial session called "Can News be Sexy?", moderated by Chris Shaw, the launch editor of Channel 5 News. Much of the discussion centred on the entertaining, but essentially self-answering, question of whether newscasters and correspondents should literally be sexy. Narrowly speaking, the answer is no: sex gods distract. More broadly, the answer is yes: effective communicators are pleasing and dynamic personalities. And that's sexy.

The veteran reporter Charles Wheeler, ostensibly there to oppose the proposition, proved the point despite himself. When the BBC insisted on regrooming Huw Edwards before making him the anchor of the Six O'Clock News last year, he should, Wheeler protested, have resigned. Yet Wheeler embodies what is good about the personality newsman. His reports are always idiosyncratically his own; the whip of his silver locks is as much a logo as Robin Day's bow tie. When Wheeler reports, you listen, whatever the subject.

Wheeler plays the statesman a bit these days, but he retains a newsman's instincts. It was Wheeler who said that the Six O'Clock News editor who placed the Mexican election above the disappearance of Sarah Payne should have been sacked. From the floor, Phil Harding, the BBC's controller of editorial policy, argued that the fault lay only in not explaining the significance of the election result. But Wheeler, and the Mirror's TV critic, Charlie Catchpole, who originally made the point, were right. If the BBC's news priorities are now more rarefied than those of the Daily Telegraph, no wonder it is failing to attract audiences.

The real problem with TV news is that, whatever channel you watch, you end up with the same news values. If you step out of line, even by varying the running order of the items, you are considered brave going on mad. Deborah Turness, the deputy editor of Channel 5 News, asked Wheeler if he thought her leading the bulletin one night on a "tabloid story" - the verdict on the blackmailing butcher Julian St Quinton (she summarised it as "Sex, Pies and Videotapes") - made her a pariah. Wheeler compassionately assured her it did not: channels should provide alternative kinds of news to different audiences. I hope this gave her confidence, because he is right.

If the BBC is going to justify its licence fee by picking off its critics station by station - BBC1 answering those who demand that it reach mass audiences, BBC4 the John Tusas who complain that arts are in decline, and so on - it must take the opportunity to break the consensus about what news is, and fashion distinctive bulletins for each of its networks. (As a contributor to another session noted, the tabloids will soon be producing their own rolling news services on the net and on Wap phones.) This is why, if the moving of the Nine O'Clock News was the most depressing moment of Dyke's speech, the most encouraging was when he revealed that BBC3, the new youth channel, was piloting "a very different sort of news bulletin that breaks many of the conventions of traditional news services". I think Dyke knows that, in the age of electronic programme guides and super-intelligent video recorders, moving newscasters about the chessboard will not be enough to save the news.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard