Battle of the Tens
Sir Trevor is back.
ITV yesterday confirmed the story that was leaked to the MediaGuardian last week - it's reviving "News at Ten", with Sir Trevor McDonald back in the slot he was first told to vacate in 1999.
I stood in the newsroom at ITN when the programme was axed. There were tears from many, angry claims that it was an act of cultural vandalism from others. What hurt was the sense that a programme that had been daring, challenging and innovative for decades appeared to be being cast aside, with little respect.
Years on it's come to be seen as one of the great TV scheduling blunders. The then ITV director of programmes, David Liddiment argued that "News at Ten" was a fixed point in the schedule that was boxing him in - if only he could shift it, he'd open the way for a brave new world where ITV could run films, longer form dramas and experiment with new programmes. He believed viewers would flock to the channel. He was wrong - as Michael Grade has admitted, ITV has never got it right at 22OO since then. Moreover, it allowed BBC News to move into the slot, and have a clearer, simpler schedule earlier in the evening that has been seen as a big success.
Three years after that announcement I stood in the ITV newsroom once again to hear ITN's chief executive, Stewart Purvis say, "A few years ago I stood here to tell you News at Ten was being axed...today I'm here to tell you it's coming back!"
I joined in the cheers at that time - but as every good journalist should know, you should always check the small print. The decision was a fudge between the regulator and ITV. The programme needed only be on at 10pm an average of three times a week. The rest of the time it was shifted round the schedules, and it was quickly dubbed "News at When".
Not so long after, I stood in the ITV newsroom to hear that it had been agreed to move the programme to 2230, five nights a week.
I wasn't in the ITV newsroom this time to hear that News at Ten is coming back - but I imagine there was another cheer. I read it on my BBC Blackberry - I moved to become editor of the Ten O'Clock News 18 months ago.
Given all the comings and goings, it's strange to think I will be in direct competition with a programme I once worked for - and that competition will be fierce. Having worked there, I know ITV News will throw everything at trying to make sure they are seen as top dog in the slot - both journalistically and in the ratings.
The sheer fact that you are reading this blog online may make you one of the people who believe this is an analogue fight in a digital world. That's an understandable position - but I believe it is wrong. Rumours of the death of the terrestrial TV news programme have been wildly exaggerated.
In the last year the BBC's Ten O'Clock News has increased its audience by nearly 300,000. Its reach, the number of people who watch it at least once a week, is up by a million, to over 17 million people. It has the youngest profile of any BBC TV News programme. I'm quoting those statistics because I believe they prove there is still a big appetite for structured news programmes - and the fact that Sir Trevor's return made front page news proves others do too. More to the point, programmes with a deadline, give journalists the thinking time and the opportunity to gather "added value" material that can be sliced and diced for other formats.
So the big question - who will win the Battle of the Tens? One thing's for sure, the early ratings will mean little. In the "News at When" era, the first ITV programme received well over 8 million viewers - that audience soon died back after the initial surge in publicity. Sir Trevor is also a literary man, he will know Thomas Wolfe's assertion that, "You can't go home again." For the BBC it will mean its dominance in the slot is constantly under attack, and at a time when big changes are afoot here at Television Centre (including a move towards what will arguably be the most advanced multimedia newsroom in the world).
I'm under no illusion, ITV is a formidable adversary, but I believe in a year's time the BBC will STILL be the market leader for news at ten.