"Bong or Bust?"
Keynote Lecture by David Mannion, Editor, ITN
Recent months have not been kind to the big broadcasters — the BBC has had issues with public trust, and ITV has had concerns about interactive phone voting, and viewers' reception of programmes such as 'Echo Beach' and 'The Palace'. In this region, there's concern over the plan to reduce 17 local news services to 9, involving the collapse of 'North East Tonight' and 'Lookaround' into one single programme.
But on the positive side, the flagship 'News at Ten' (with Trevor McDonald) has sailed back onto the screens. Is it a shot across the bows of the BBC and Sky? Or has ITV shot itself in the foot? As more and more people reply on broadband website for their news, and even the newspapers are rushing to make video clips, what hope is there for the traditional major news bulletins?
David Mannion learned his journalism as an agency hack in the Midlands, but moved on to greater things — 'The Cook Report', 'Tonight With Trevor McDonald', Channel 4 News — and is now back at ITN as its Editor.
The North East & The Border Centre were proud to welcome him to Live Theatre in Newcastle on Thursday Feb 21st 2008 to present our Keynote Lecture, "Bong or Bust?"
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be given the RTS Judge's Award in London. On that occasion Stewart Purvis introduced me as "the most competitive bastard in broadcast news" — actually, I think it was only later that he added the word 'competitive'!
He was right. I am very competitive. I hate coming second — even if I've got both hands tied behind my back and my neck in a noose I still believe there must be a way to win — so you'll understand that I'm not happy that 'News at Ten' is still behind the BBC 10 in the ratings..
So, I've given my speech tonight the title of 'Bong or Bust' because I do believe that the decision by ITV to bring back 'News at Ten' is a brave one and a very significant one for both the TV world and the wider world of this democratic society in which we are privileged to live.
I believe ITV's new schedule — the programmes yet to come — is a good one... and that the strategy to modernise programming on ITV is right. BUT — in this game nothing is certain and if it should go wrong the consequences could be extremely serious.
I will also talk a little bit about the future of regional news on ITV post switch-over because — as you all are only too well aware — that service is also entering a very uncertain future, and to a degree the two issues — adequately funded network news and sustainable regional news — are linked.
I should however, caveat what I say about the regions by making it clear that whilst I have a formal editorial overview of regional news in England and Wales as part of my brief, the decisions about its future will be made (of course) by ITV at the highest corporate level.
So let's begin with 'News at Ten'. What is very interesting and very significant is that ITV in the small (but perfectly-formed) shape of Simon Shaps decided to bring 'News at Ten' back because he believed it was in the best commercial interests of ITV.
It was not because he thought we were all nice people and we deserved a break — it was part (and a very major part) of a change to the ITV schedule, both in chronology and content — a change that he and Michael Grade both believe will revive ITV's long-term fortunes both on screen and in the City.
These guys, Michael and Simon, are no mugs. And it's very interesting that this decision was taken not under regulatory pressure but actually at the very moment that ITV is set to be released from many of its old public service commitments. Scheduling news in peak, head to head with the powerful BBC '10 O'clock News' was a bold decision, but it was a commercial decision.
For me, as someone who remembers and worked on the old 'News at Ten' in its so-called glory days, it was a wonderful development — the best news programme in Britain back in its old slot, where it belonged. ITV finally recognising that to move it in the first place had been a catastrophic mistake.
But it was also a bit like receiving that terrible long pass from Johnny Wilkinson in the Six Nations match against Wales the other week — I knew it was going to be horribly difficult to catch the ball, run with it, dodge all on coming opponents and cross the line for a winning try.
Because of course, during the eight or nine years that 'News at Ten' had been off the air, the landscape of British television and the media in general has changed out of all recognition. ITV itself has had a difficult time and — until the arrival of the current management — it had lost a degree of confidence. That is no longer the case.
The numbers of channels had multiplied like rabbits — broadband take-up had persuaded millions more potential TV viewers to spend more time on the net. News had become a commodity — absorbed throughout the day via 24 hour channels on TV, radio and even mobile phones.
Some industry figures were even suggesting that appointment-to-view news programmes on multi-genre channels such as ITV1 were close to the end of their shelf life — and of course the looming revolution of digital switch-over meant that the old deal of public service broadcasting in return for valuable analogue spectrum space was about to evaporate.
So why — just at this moment of all moments — did ITV believe it was commercially right to bring back 'News at Ten'?
Well... I'm buggered if I know!!!!
Actually I think I might have an inkling.
When Michael, Simon and others looked both at the history of broadcasting and at the future demands of the audience they concluded that:
- New media does not kill old media — it just moves in alongside it. That can make life crowded and difficult, but it's rarely fatal and, in some cases (such as the renaissance of radio) it can actually be a stimulus for growth.
- There remained a healthy market — millions of viewers — who may well use new media, and even create their own individual news channels but who still also want to see what sense we (the professionals) make of the day's events.
- And the message from research and focus groups was that news gives a channel like ITV1 a demonstrable, obvious and BIG point of differentiation in what is an increasingly crowded market place — and that goes for regional news too, (maybe even more so).
It gives ITV life, distinction and personality. It can drive the audience upmarket to deliver the prized high achievers with more money to spend, and it can enrich the whole experience of watching ITV.
So what have we at ITN/ITV News done to try to deliver? Well the first thing we decided was that the return of 'News at Ten' was not going to be simply a matter of moving the 10.30 back half an hour. We needed to build a brand new programme from the ground up. And we needed to re-calibrate both our working day and our resource base to ensure that the new flagship was as good as we could make it.
We took an early decision to bring back some of the familiarity of the old show — the bongs; a new version of the iconic title sequence; the famous 'News at Ten' sign off, and even the "and finally..." And of course we brought back Trevor to co-anchor with the exceptionally-talented Julie Etchingham.
We did that because 'News at Ten' — even though it had been off the air for years — was still a very strong brand... it was still often referenced in dramas, entertainment shows and even normal everyday conversation. It would have been crazy to have thrown away that brand awareness, and that warmth for the product that still existed.
But in bringing back some familiar elements, we were anxious also that we provided a very modern, contemporary product infused with state of the art technology as well as top-class broadcast journalism.
We demanded yet more from our staff and ourselves. We demanded original ideas, and exclusives by the barrow load — and we are delivering on all of that.
We reminded ourselves that every day we have to get up and prepare to slay the Goliath that is BBC News in order that, over time and with better inheritance from the ITV schedule than has so far been the case, we can chip away at the granite block that is the old and conservative BBC '10 O'clock News' audience. Apologies for the mixed metaphor.
And by the way — isn't it ironic that the daft and damaging decision to axe 'News at Ten' was compounded by a typical piece of opportunism from one of ITV's great heroes, Greg Dyke, when he was temporarily ensconced with the enemy — for it was Greg of course who moved the BBC News to 10!
Those two decisions effectively handed four million viewers a night to the BBC at a stroke. Winning them back will be a long, hard and difficult job. It is one that I and my colleagues are relishing but one that we can achieve.
We had better, because if we fail the unthinkable could nudge itself into the realms of possibility. ITV believes in news for the reasons I have outlined. Previous ITV managements regarded news as a problem — a genre forced upon them, and one they would rather not have at all. That seeped into the blood stream of the audience, who began to perceive that ITV was not the place for quality news.
That was difficult to take — but we kept going, and now we are regarded not as a problem, but as an asset. And as long as we can produce high-quality first-hand journalism — a genuine, adequately-funded alternative to the BBC (albeit on a fraction of their resource base) — as long as we can punch our weight in a commercial schedule, we will continue to be both a commercial asset to Michael and his team AND a genuine service to the viewing public.
But if we fall short and if (in some nightmare vision of the future), ITV has new owners, those new owners may decide to strip the asset — to cut news costs to the bone or even abandon news altogether.
And although there are terrific news programmes on Channel Four and Five, neither has the resource base to go head-to-head with the BBC in terms of global newsgathering. In that scenario the BBC would not exactly be handed back a monopoly, but it would represent a major step backwards for free, independent, politically-unaligned broadcast news on free-to-air television.
So as you can see, there is potentially an awful lot riding on this… and we are going to have to be right at the top of our games every second of every hour of every day.
Now let me bring regional news on ITV into the equation, because (although it might not feel like it at the moment to those working in the ITV regions) you also have a lot to thank Michael Grade for.
Don't forget, with Digital Swith-Off comes choice for ITV. They need every penny they can get to produce a competitive schedule — failure would be a disaster. And in that febrile climate, it is not unreasonable for some very hard questions to be asked... and my guess is that they were.
Why should ITV keep regional news when, in a digital future, the regulator cannot demand it? Regional news is inherently expensive because of the multiplicity of sites. Could we make more money by axing regional news and replacing it with 'The Simpsons'?
Those questions (or questions like them) probably were asked and answers were probably given. But Michael and Simon believe in regional news — just like network news — they believe regional news gives ITV a commercial and competitive advantage over rival channels. It gives ITV a unique connection with its audience at something approaching grass-roots level, and it offers revenue-raising possibilities at a local level.
One can never say "never" or "ever" in this business any more, but certainly for the next several years ITV regional news will continue to have a place in ITV's schedule, because the current top brass at ITV believe it gives them a commercial benefit.
But — and there has to be a but — regional news must be economically sustainable. Were the advantages it delivers to ITV to be overhauled by burgeoning costs, those questions will (and quite legitimately) be asked again.
Already regional news has undergone some painful rationalisation, and there is probably more to come — though any further changes will, of course, have to be approved by Ofcom.
But you know, the future of network and regional news really remains in our hands — in the hands of the practitioners — those of us who spend our lives at the coal face of broadcast journalism on ITV. Because, guess what?... some things don't change. If we work hard, make our own luck and make programmes that enough people choose to watch, then no one can touch us.
Mike Parr (Chairman): Can I start with a question David, to get the ball rolling. Do you think there will still be national news bulletins on the main channels, giving that we've got rolling news, in five years time?
DM: Oh yes, definitely, and way beyond that in my judgement. I mean first of all you've got to remember that even 24-hour news channels on traditional broadcast television are attracting minute audiences. Now that same product will transfer over to broadband and you'll be able to carry it around with you and all the rest of it, and most people will access 24-hour news channels not sitting in front of a TV but on a whole range of other devices. As I said a few minutes ago, I think that there will continue to be a place for all those forms of news over the next (who can tell?)… certainly 10 years, I would guess, because we absolutely know that if we get it right there are enough people out there who still want the job done for them or who want to compare what we do with what they've discovered through the day themselves. So my strong belief is that major 'appointment to watch' (as we call it) television news programmes on mainstream multi-genre channels does have a place, and will continue to have a place for the next 10 years or longer.
MP: Any questions from the floor please — who's going to kick it off.
JM: Jonathon Morrell from ITV Tyne Tees....
DM: Remember what you say could be a good career move.... or a dodgy one!!
JM: I'm not feeling the pressure David! 'News at Ten' has got about (what?) 2-, just over 2-million viewers at the minute compared to the BBC's 4.5. Have you been set a figure; have you been told by the top brass you've got to achieve this?... and the supplementary to this is are we in a better position now with having 'News at Ten' with 2 million viewers than whatever we had before, which was doing really very bad business at ITV?
DM: Well I don't want it to stay at 2-million for long because it's not enough, and (as I said) I don't want to be second to the BBC either. So we've got to work hard on that, but the facts of the matter are that ITV chose to put on three brand-new shows when they relaunched the schedule in the 9-10 slot, and that's a tough call for any viewer to kind of adopt three brand-new shows when the BBC were able to wheel out proven success after success after success. So we're not getting the inheritance that we would like to get from the 9-10 slot but we can't rely totally on inheritance — we've got to (as I said) try to persuade as many people as we can across from the BBC audience.... but the fact is that 10 o'clock is back in the big time for ITV news and it's big for the schedule too, so we've got to deliver a bigger audience than 2-million going forward. But I'd much rather be at 10 o'clock than at 10.30 — it gives us a fighting chance and we are fighters. There was a second bit to your question....?
JM: The second bit was "Am I right in saying that with 2 million viewers at 10 o'clock, ITV is already in a better position than they were with some of the other stuff?"
DM: Yes, you mentioned a target didn't you.
JM: I did mention a target, yeah.
DM: Let me make it clear for a start we have not been given a target. I mean, I'm sure that there is a commercial target in there somewhere, but I don't know what it is and certainly Michael this very day dropped me a note congratulating us for winning the RTS Awards last night for the 6.30 News, making it absolutely clear he thinks the programme at 10 o'clock is right… is doing the right things… is a much more watchable programme in his view than BBC equivalent, and every day we've got to persuade a few more people to come over to us. And when they do, we've got to make sure they like what they see. There is a terrible Americanism which goes 'antissappointment'! We don't want people to anticipate watching 'News at Ten' and then be disappointed so every day it's got to be the best polished show it can make, but no we have not been set any targets at all. I'm setting targets in my own mind, in my own head and my own heart for what I think we can achieve, and I think it's going to take a while… but I'm pretty sure we can get there.
JM: Do you think it's in the viewers' interest to have two bulletins on at the same time?
DM: Well, I think that's a good point — it's an arguable point, and I mean earlier in the day we're on at 6.30 and BBC national news is of course on at 6, and it's vice versa with the regions. At 10 o'clock at least there is a clear choice for people, and we are endeavouring to make 'News at Ten' distinctive from the BBC. What was always the case in the old days if you like was that people pretty much thought that the BBC product and the ITV product were both good, and they watched whichever one fitted into their evening's schedule. These days, because of all the competitive elements that have come down to bear upon us, it means that we've got to just forget all that and say "We've got to make a standalone show that people will come to, whether it's in their evening's viewing or not, because they think it's a better product (or one they will like better) than the BBC. So we're trying to do it differently from the BBC.
Some people prefer — the BBC model, and that's fine... we want people to say "No, 'News at Ten' is a bit different from that and I like what I see… I'm going to watch." This is years, you know… the ITV turnaround plan is a three to five year plan, it's going to take a while to get that audience back — that audience that (as I said in my speech) was given to the BBC on a plate over the last few years.
MP: Next question from the audience please.
Olwyn Hocking: I'd love to hear you say a bit more about what you see as those key points of difference then… what are the differences you're trying to bring out?
DM: Right okay. Well first of all we are endeavouring to deliver more original journalism on 'News at Ten', and to think very hard about whether we should go with a sort of default lead items.... you know (dare I mention it?) Northern Rock or whatever it might be... terribly important story, but it's kind of default. Is that the right lead or should we be leading on something else? We're trying very hard to deliver genuine news that people won't have absorbed as ambient news throughout their working day, so that when they come to 'News at Ten' there will be something fresh to see. But crucially, crucially there's the ITN way of doing stuff which is different from the BBC. It's the way we tell stories — we tend to tell stories through ordinary people; ordinary people caught up in extraordinary moments and we deliberately get down amongst those people and try to tell our stories through them rather than just tell stories about them, and that's quite a nebulous thing to get hold off, and it's quite difficult when you want to try to explain it. The other thing we place a very high premium on is the quality of our reporters, and the quality of writing that those reporters can deliver. And the final thing (which is a bit like the BBC but I just think that we're more enterprising)… we don't mind having a bit of fun; we try things out. You know, we've just sub-anchored a programme from underneath the Antarctic… well, that took a bit of doing, and when someone came in and said "I've got this great idea — we want to go to the Antarctic and anchor the show from underneath the ice....", [we said] "Get out of here... no, come back, because actually we might be able to do that"! Years ago there was a reporter called Brent Sadler, who now works for CNN, and there was an oil tanker disaster off the Welsh coast, and this typified the difference even then between us and the BBC, I think.... excuse me, BBC people, you're wonderful people by the way and I love you all!... but the difference was that the BBC came on and did their piece to camera from the beach with the tanker in the background, Sadler was on board and that's the kind of enterprising journalism that makes us stand out, and I want more of that in the future.
OH: One follow-up… just because you've named exactly the other thing that was very much at the forefront of my mind... you mentioned the Antarctic live, which I thought was almost too stunning because you just couldn't always believe what you were seeing…
DM: It was all done in Studio 2 on Chromakey, by the way. Don't tell a soul, will you! [laugh]
OH: But that leads me to a completely different kind of left-field question, which is (if you don't mind)…which is that that was a real commitment to telling a climate change story in a very, very adventurous brilliant way, but as somebody who is very involved in doing climate change work at the moment, sometimes there almost seems to be parallel universes in the way journalists cover stories now. Because it's such a big story and it will be covered, but then other stories (like rising oil prices or fuel prices or congestion in the air) are covered as if we don't have a huge climate change story, and I'm just curious as to the discussions in your newsroom at the morning meetings, whether the scale of the climate change story means that you won't be in parallel universes, but you'll actually be kind of making sure that people can carry it all in their heads at the same time, if you know what I mean.
DM: I think that's actually happening naturally. I mean, climate change issues does sort of invade almost every story… even things that you think were completely unrelated — the terrible, terrible things going on in Bridgend County at the moment with 17/18 young people who have taken their own lives — there's one suggestion that one or two of them exchanged views about the fact that the world was going to end, so what was the point? So climate change and its consequences does invade almost every decision that we make… not all of them — that's an exaggeration… but quite a lot, and I do think that those two... and I do agree with you by the way… I think they have been too universal, but I think they're now coming together. And certainly we are absolutely committed to the story, not for any other reason… not for any altruistic reason… we just think it's box office. You know people want to know this stuff, and also it's a fantastic picture story; it's great for telly and we can go to places where their lives are already being changed, so I think it's one of the stories that will dominate news until we all explode, really.
MP: Gentleman in the white shirt.
DM: I know who that gentleman is, and I'm going to call him 'Sir'.
BB: No you're not. Bernard Balderston, I'm Head of Media at Proctor and Gamble. I'd be interested to see where you see the success being measured in 'News at Ten' in terms of (for example) is it numbers or is it demographics? Because what we're looking at in terms of the early results of the shift (from an advertiser point of view) is that whilst you've increased the numbers a little bit (by probably 650,000) versus the previous slot, what you're actually delivering is frankly an older, more downmarket, more female product, which is to some degree a description of what ITV does a lot of in a lot of other day parts. So from an advertiser point of view, I'd be quite interested in your perspective of where you want to see the demographics end up when you've had this period of (hopefully) growth against the BBC… and the supplementary question which I will ask now is, do you think that the choice of Trevor MacDonald as lead presenter has actually contributed to the demographics that the show is actually producing, and is there a case for arguing that there should have been a different presenter… perhaps a younger, fresher presenter on the male side?
DM: ITV has traditionally attracted an audience which is more female than male… that's 60/40 in most parts of the cycle, and part of the job of 'News at Ten' over time is to help that change. Not that we don't want the female viewers, of course… we do but we want to have more men watching us… we want to narrow that gap between the two, and have more high-achievers with more money to spend in terms of the demographic that we aim for. And this is not really an isolated question about News… it's a question about the schedule itself, and I'm really not sure I'm qualified to talk in detail about it… but what I will say is that I know what Simon is trying to achieve, and with new programmes, intelligent comedies and all the rest of it, over time he is hoping to change the way people think about ITV… that it's not just about the brilliant successes of 'Coronation Street' and 'Emmerdale' and 'The Bill' and so on, but that it's also about new fresh comedy with new fresh writers — it's about shows that traditionally you might have seen on Channel 4 or BBC2 a few years ago, coming into the mainstream on ITV1 and attracting a sizeable chunk of audience, but also one that is demographically perhaps more important in terms of who they are and who's watching.
This is a process. What we are up against at the moment is that a lot of the stuff is yet to roll out, and let me if I can (sort of) ask for a degree of discretion when I say this.... if you look for example at some nights we are tasked with making a news programme which is popular (of course) and populist, but which is also intelligent and covers all the serious news of the day thoroughly and gives decent analysis — that is aimed at the high end of the market. Sometimes we're preceded by shows like 'Ladette to Lady', who not only deliver us a pretty poor volume, they are news avoiders who watch that show, so when ten o'clock comes round, they don't even give us a chance… they're off somewhere else. So this has got to be a cohesive strategy, but I can tell you that strategy is in place… everyone is signed up to it and over time we believe it will work, but it is a long term game that we're in.
As to the Trevor Macdonald issue, I've got to declare a bit of an interest — he's one of my best pals and has been for 25 years. Trevor never went away… people think he went away but he was still doing Tonight with Trevor Macdonald and lots of other stuff. It was Michael's idea initially I think to ask Trevor to come back, and it was one of Michael's... he's brilliant at this... it was a PR stunt to end them all, but then of course you've got to deliver. I think the jury's out to be honest, I mean he's incredibly popular, and we'll have to wait for a bit of data to come through to see if he has a positive or negative impact on the audience. I can't imagine for one minute... I mean, I see him socially occasionally — I play tennis with him, you know. This guy is Mr Popular… I sometimes think his back must be sore because of the people who come up and say, not "Hello, Sir Trevor, how are you?", but "Hi, Trev", He's like a friend to them, so I can't imagine he would be anything other than an asset… but these things we have to watch and take a look at, and take a view on from time to time.
MP: Garth, please.
GJ: Garth Jeffery, retired BBC. You've mentioned choice… I mean, it isn't choice now is it? I know you can choose between which bulletin but I (being a news junkie) watched both… now I can't, and I could look at the different styles of reporting and the different emphasis on the stories. That seems to me less choice for the viewer and not more choice for the viewer.
DM: Yes.... so get the BBC to move [laughter]… we ain't going anywhere! Look, I think that's a fact of life and we just live with it. Of course, if you want to you can easily record one and watch it later on, I do that.
GJ: Yes, but it becomes more difficult doesn't it.
DM: I accept that. I can even get it on the net by the way, so it's getting easier… and if I can do it, anybody can do it, I can tell you.
PR: Hi, Paul Robertson, Editor of the still alive-and-kicking Evening Chronicle, despite being under siege from you lot! [laughter] How important do you think brand is in terms of news going forward? I say that specifically because there's been an explosion (obviously) in user-generated-content, and as you see the internet has become (as Mike was saying) a source for News, and quite often even when it's not fact, it's being treated as fact... so do you think the brand at 'News at Ten' , the brand at the Chronicle, the brand at the BBC… can you now cut through all that, and ensure that there's a strong future for independent News?
DM: Yeah, the brand is terribly important and going back to Trevor, Trevor is part of the brand at 'News at Ten', and a very major part of the brand at 'News at Ten'. These days you can't miss a trick… you know you have to throw everything you've got at making people a) aware that you exist and b) when they're aware that you exist, enticing them to watch you. And then when they watch you, they go out of that programme at the end of it thinking that that was worthwhile spending half an hour with. So every trick in the book that we can use we need to use to get those eyeballs on our screens and away from other people's screens, and the branding is part of that. You know, bringing back these things that I talked about earlier on… you know, the 'News at Ten' sign-off, the bongs, the 'and finally'.... people remember these things; they're fond of them, and again over time we hope that more people will enjoy them than are doing so at the current time. But yes, brand is very important and of course 'News at Ten' is a brand-within-a-brand of course — ITV is the mother ship.
PR: So just a supplementary to that, how do you sell your brand to the audience from 10 years? Obviously there's been a ten year gap, and you've got an audience there… a younger audience who don't know you. How are you going to sell your brand to them?
DM: Well I mean we put it in the shop window every night at 10 o'clock for people to see, and you know at ITN we have a limited ability (if you like) to do the sell — that's really ITV's job and they have competing programmes that they want to promote and all the rest of it. We got fantastic support from ITV before the launch of 'News at Ten'… we got the first off-air campaign — I think there's only been two in history — certainly the first sustained one for a long time, selling the kinds of things I talked earlier on to Olwyn about… the sort of ITN way of doing things, and the big things that make us stand out, like Trevor, like the bongs. You know, when we were thinking of ways of selling it before we went on the air, people were coming up with some ideas and so forth, and some of them were I think just too clever for their own good. All you needed to say is "'News at Ten' is back… take a look at it and we hope you like it".... because the old brand still had great resonance. The job of selling the whole schedule, and 'News at Ten' is part of it, is one that ITV have, and we don't have our own time to promote our own show. The only times we can do it is in the 15-second slot we get at a quarter to ten and then in our headlines and in our pre-commercials.
You would be amazed... I don't want to sound like a mill-owner, but I am absolutely Maoist about the way we look at these little moments in the course of the programme when we can help to retain audience is terribly important, and now we've got a commercial break back in the middle of 'News at Ten' that we hold people over that break, so that alters the whole structure of the show. You need to keep something frankly quite sexy and interesting back for the top of part two, and you need to sell it, you know a bit like those people who write newspaper billboards do it. They don't tell you what the story is, they just say "Queen Shock"... what's that, is she dead? You buy the paper and you find out they're talking about the Queens Head in Brighton has had a fire or something. But the point is that we've got to work very, very hard on those little moments when people can say "I'm off". We had one the other day... what the hell was it.... there was a story.. this was a while back where someone had kind of fallen out of an aeroplane and his parachute hadn't worked properly, but just before it got too late the parachute opened and the second chute opened and he landed safely. And the precom of course should have said "You know what happened next?.., did he die or was he fine?", but in fact the pre-commercial trail gave the game away.... absolutely ridiculous! So people say "Okay, I know that… now I'm off to make a cup of tea". So we've got to work terribly hard at all those things, and you know as I say over time we'll get those eyeballs.
MP: Do you think those swooping images over the Thames at the start of the show… are they a little bit London-centric?
DM: Again we put that out to a bit of research and we found people weren't bothered at all by it. What they do is they will associate Big Ben with 'News at Ten', they associate the globe with BBC. Those are the two iconic images of the two programmes and we asked people outside London whether they had any problem with that.... in fact the whole thing does start up in space, so you can't get much more widespread than that, and then it comes down very, very quickly across the whole of Britain and sweeps up the Thames and so on. But we found that people don't think of it like that any more — they recognise that London is the seat of Government; that Big Ben is the nation's timepiece, not London's, and they don't have a problem with it.
JG: Hi, I'm Jack Gleeson, I'm a student at Newcastle College. I'd just like to ask how you plan to bring back the viewer. As Mike Parr said, like the internet is so popular for news, how you plan to bring back the viewers that would normally view the internet as a primary news source to the ITV or BBC news source?
DM: Well, you mean how we get them back from other forms of news like on the net and so forth?
DM: Well, I don't think we will. I think people will do all things at different times in their daily lives. So I don't think we'll be able to persuade any more people to say "I'm not going to get my news from the net any more, I'm just going to watch 'News at Ten'". That would be frankly farcical — there's no way back in time. But what we can do is say do all that stuff because it's great, and you can find out everything you want to know, and you can go in-depth if you want to go in-depth and all the rest of it.... but at the end of your day (or close to the end of your day) there is this thing called 'News at Ten'. That they will tell you stuff you didn't know; it will also tell you stuff that you thought you might know but didn't quite know enough about… it will give you a bit of breadth, a bit of analysis, and it will tell you what the professionals think were the main stories of the day and so forth. So I don't think it's one or t'other anymore, I think it's just part of peoples lives now… they'll absorb news and access it in a whole bunch of different ways. And our job now is to say there is also still a place for the support of a new product because if you watch it you'll enjoy it.
MP: Can I ask you what you think they should do to try and combat the threat from the internet?
JG: Well, I know that you wouldn't.... I mean like the internet is so broad on what its content actually is, but the problem that I see with the ITV and the BBC is there doesn't seem to be an independent report like "this is what we think, this is"… where they actually get down to the real issues. They say they get down to the key points, and then they say "Moving on to the weather…."
DM: Hang on, that's a very interesting thought… and the fact of the matter is that you know various products (if I can put it in that term), news programmes and ways of accessing the news, they do different things. I mean Channel 4 News (of which I was editor of for a large sum of years, some years back) has more acreage. It's an hour long show every night… it has as part of its remit, it's required by Channel 4 to do more in-depth reporting of foreign affairs and international issues, and areas that you know mainstream news on BBC1 and ITV1 tend not to do much of. The arts is one example. So different products (if you like) do different things. What we try to do with 'News at Ten' is say "Look, give us half an hour and we'll give you the World (is the old cliché)… we'll do our best to distil down what we think are the main issues of the day; we'll try and put context in that for you as well, so that at the end of the programme you think you're pretty well versed about what's happened that day. But what you can do of course these days is say (as we often say and the BBC do all the time), "If you want to know more about that, go to the website", or "If you want to know about that, it's on radio 5 tomorrow", or whatever it might be. So there's a whole range of areas where you can get more depth. I'm not saying we should do it on 'News at Ten' — in fact we do do it… it's part of our remit too — but there's only so much you can get into 22.5 minutes, which is basically all the editorial time we've got. And in that time it's our job to tell people what's happened across the world that day that is of significance to them as best we can… but it's a very interesting thought, very interesting thought.
Peter Moth: ITN has always had a distinctive brand and it seems to be a distinctive style. One of the problems with BBC News is that it relies on a series of correspondents who tell you what has happened, but don't show you what has happened. The strength of ITN has always been its directness in its reporting of news, but that's expensive. Are you happy with the budget that you're getting in order to deliver the distinctiveness of the brand?
DM: There's a sting in the tail there, wasn't there! I'd like more money, but actually ITV have been pretty good over the last few years. The deal basically is if the team in the newsroom (who are wonderful) and our team of reporters (who are fantastic) can deliver the kind of product that is very high class and what ITV want, and delivers what the audience want too, then ITV will continue to invest in News. Now I don't expect to get a fraction of the resource base the BBC have… I don't actually want it because I think it can make you lazy. We have to make very tight decisions; we can't afford to waste a cent because we know there aren't too many cents coming down afterwards. So that sharpens you — it means that every decision you make pretty much has to work and so forth. But what ITV have done, and what I've been able to do as well, is shift the money around a bit. About four or five years ago, if you take the whole budget of ITV News, there was too much of it going into fixed costs (if you like), and not enough going on the screen as disposable income… the money to send reporters and crews to stories around the world… and we've been able to change that; change that percentage balance over the last few years, so that we now have more money on screen. But on top of that, ITV have just invested £18 million in a brand new Avid system in our newsroom which is being built right now.
I went to them [ITV] a couple of years ago and said "We have to have a China bureau — we can't be a serious news operation and not be permanently in Beijing — but I can't afford it. Give me some money, please", and they did. So it's a misconception to think that ITV are strangling network news financially all the time. They are not. We have to make a pretty strong case for every penny that we ask ITV for, but they do listen and where they do feel it is appropriate, they cough up. Now the fact of the matter is that you know we manage our money very carefully, and on most nights on most occasions I think it's reasonable to say that you wouldn't know when you watch the BBC Ten or 'News at Ten' on ITV that the BBC have much more in the way of resources than we have. In fact sometimes I'm baffled by the fact that (as you say) while we're out there doing the story in picture terms they're talking to a correspondent in the studio, and I find that a bit odd… but that's the way they do it, and that's fine. So I'm not pleading poverty. I'd like a bit more if I could have a bit more, but you know we're not poor either. We're adequately resourced to do the job that we're supposed to do, which is compete effectively with the BBC. So a few more bob now and again wouldn't be a bad thing, but (you know) we're not unhappy.
MP: Now on to the back row please.
VA: Yes, Vin Arthey, formerly Tyne Tees TV, now the University of Teesside. Just to confirm what you've said in answer to the previous question about the ITN way of doing things… picture-led, which is what I try and teach students now. The question, going back to what you were saying earlier about the news mix, is there room in television news now for local television news?
DM: Do you mean is there room in network news for local news, or....
VA: Either. I wonder whether the old notion of regions which came through the transmitters is going, and we have to reinvent what we mean by regional and local news, so is there room in this new mix for more local news rather than larger regional news?
DM: I think there ought to be room for both. I mean ITV Local is developing into a great success, but that's one product which is (as it says) local and confined to small areas, and I got my first television job in regional television in what was then — God, this shows how bloody old I am! — called ATV, now Central and Birmingham, which at that time covered the whole of the Midlands from Birmingham. And you know, the East Midlands and the south, which now have separate stations — that wasn't the case before. And if there's a sub-text to what you're saying, it's that I think if ITV goes down the road of cutting the number of flagship programmes and the numbers of sites, will that somehow undermine the value of local news. It's really only going back in many instances to the map that we had right at the beginning, 50 years ago, of regional news.
I think the other thing to remember is talking about regional news all the time, regional news programmes (and we have a very good one here in Newcastle) aren't just news… they're news-led, of course, and of course that is their dominant role — to deliver news from the region every single night. But they also have another (and I think an equally important) role to play, and that is they become part of the community. They can celebrate the community, it doesn't have to be.... I remember when I took over some responsibility for the regions and I went round most of them, and I kid you not after watching about10 minutes of most of the shows I wanted to jump out of a tall building or put my face into a pillow, because it was rape after knife attack after murder after whatever. You think is nothing happening in this place that is other than crime-related, and of course there are and there is, and that's also the job of regional news programmes. As I've said before, it's in our hands this. Yes, the short answer to your question is "Yes, I passionately believe that there is a place for both broader regional broadcasting and local broadcasting." I believe there is a place for both, and I believe that the public actively like it and that the job that we've got to do of course (and it's easy to say, and difficult to do) is to make sure that we're delivering a very, very good quality product every single day, so that they'll enjoy what they see.
MP: But of course the commercial reality is you're actually making the regions bigger aren't you rather than smaller, to follow on from your point.
DM: Yes, but in concert with ITV Local, which wasn't there before.
MP: Question from Phillipa please.
PT: Thank you, Phillipa Thompson ITV Tyne Tees. Just regional related again — is there a case, because I think it was probably quite good for the regions, for bringing back the regional bulletins within the network news?
DM: Em.... I don't know actually the answer to that because I've not seen any research which would tell me one way or t'other. It wasn't a decision that ITN took… it was a decision that ITV took, and they thought it would just declutter the whole end of that News. The weather, and the sponsorship, and then the regional news… and there was quite a lot of clutter around. And Mark Sharman, who came in and took over as Director of News and Sport on ITV felt that it just needed a tidying up. Now, looking at the ratings I don't think it's made a jot of difference frankly, so I think again the jury's out and we'll get some more research down the line. But I don't think it's made any impact, good or ill, on the numbers of people watching. I have to say I think I'd slightly prefer it because I think it is cleaner and less cluttered than it...
PT: You prefer it as it is now?
DM: Yes I think I do, because also the regions get a clean start. It's surprising what people do get confused about… you should never confuse your audience, and the audience was getting a bit confused I think about what's the end of network and the beginning of [regional] and so on. So I think it has tidied it up.
PT: But there was a time when we were told about the integration aspect was really good…
DM: That was Clive Jones, and now it's Mark Sharman, and they have different views… and I agree with them both of course, because I want to keep my job! [laughter]
Bernard Balderston: I just want to pick up a point that Mike made at the very beginning (and also that the gentleman made over there) about younger people, and where people are getting their news these days. If you sit back and look at what's happening in society, technology is allowing far greater access to news and television on a mobile basis and through the internet. Obviously people in an office environment can get news access on an hourly or whatever basis throughout the day, and just looking forward it kind of seems from one point of view to a certain extent both 'News at Ten' and the BBC News are really dinosaurs in a sense that they are predominantly watched by people who are right at the older spectrum. And that if you allow that… if you kind of project yourself forward about 10 years, as the generations come through who are going to be much more used to internet access, mobile telephone access and all of that kind of technology that goes with it, that actually in a sense we're looking at something which is inevitably going to decline in terms of viewer interest.
DM: Well look, I think you've hit upon the most difficult job of all that we have. You know the holy grail for television news has always been to try to attract a younger audience, and it's bloody difficult because at a certain age they didn't want to know. I'm in danger of being the eternal optimist here, but I think now we do have an opportunity to look at this again because what is absolutely clear with the proliferation of information available 24 hours a day through a variety of platforms on a variety of devices… what is absolutely clear is that there is a massive thirst out there amongst every age group — young, middle aged and old — for information. Let's not call it 'news', let's just call it 'information' for the moment. What is absolutely clear is that people want to know stuff. Now they have the ability now to choose whatever they are interested in, and that's fine — that's fine and dandy. What we have to do as traditional broadcasters is to get in there with them… you know, make sure that our name and our brand and our product is part of what they are rummaging through every day of their lives, and then hopefully to drag a few of them back along the route to more traditional methods of accessing news and information on broadcast TV. Again a terribly, terribly easy thing to say and a terribly hard thing to achieve, but I do think that we'd be missing a trick in the whole industry (and in the advertising industry as well as the media industry) of saying "Look, they're out there, they want to know stuff. How can we try to ensure that they as part of their search for information come across us, and like what they find, and use what they find?"
BB: The key to that is surely an engagement with the viewer isn't it?
BB: And if you're talking about attracting younger people, then I think that's absolutely aspirationally correct… then you've got to be able to engage these people in the sense that they want to, that they like the style of the programme, they like the way it's presented and most importantly they like the people who are presenting it. I don't think it's any coincidence that you can see why Channel 5 have hired Natasha Kaplinsky to some extent.
DM: Not that much money though, thank you very much!
But no, I absolutely understand your point and I think it's one that we have to monitor very carefully (and I'm choosing my words carefully, as you will probably gather). But I think it's one that we have to monitor very carefully. I certainly think it is not the case by the way... let me say this completely on the record.. it is not the case in all the work that we have done, research work, that young people are turned off by Trevor Macdonald, and again if there's a sub-text that I've misinterpreted, then forgive me… but in fact young people think Trevor is cool, and when he does the television awards show on ITV every year... I don't know if you've ever been to it, but it's where real ITV viewers, quite a lot of them young in their teens and early 20s… I mean, it's a screen fest when Trevor comes on the stage… he is adored by young people.
The test for us is how do we plug into that, how do we make that... how do we monetise (I suppose, if I can use that term)? But it's not the case that because he is of a certain age that he is unattractive to young people; that is not the case and certainly with Julie Etchingham who is just fantastic and appeals across the piece, I think we've got a product which could work — I don't want to make any promises I can't keep here — but which could work for younger audiences. The problem is in most people's minds when they are between the ages of 15 and 25, 'News is News is News', and they're not that interested in it… and again we've got to find ways of saying "Try it again… it's changed, you might like it, it does different stuff now".
MP: How much viewer generated content do you think we'll be using in five years time?
DM: Viewer generated content is not new. I mean, President Kennedy's death was captured by viewer-generated content, and there will be many instances over the years where that has been the case. What is the case now, of course, is everybody carries video capability around with them every day, so there's much, much more of it around, and what people like us have to do is put it to various tests before it gets on the air… you know, "Is it what it appears to be, is it safe, is it legal, who shot it?" and all that kind of stuff, and there's a whole kind of industry now where you have to kind of check the stuff out and it's very valuable. It's another arm of our news gathering. I think though that people talk about .... what's the phrase that people use? [Citizen] journalism? But it's not, it's 'coverage', and there's a difference between accessing picture, and the journalism that tells you what that picture is about or what it's not about. So there is a misconception that we're handing over our trade to people who are not trained to do that job. The coverage, yeah… we'll take a look at that and if it stands up and it's credible, then we'll use it… but let's apply journalism to it as well in our own way, and do that. But I think it's a very useful tool; it's a very useful addition and we've had some great successes using it.
Graeme Thompson: It was just really to reference about Bernard's point really, that the Henley Centre has given ITV some information about audience trends and markets, and what they're saying is "Don't discard your older audience." 40 is the new 30, 50 is the new 40 and so on, and there's a lot of people out there who are now over 40 years of age who have lots of money to spend, so they're attractive to advertisers and they have grown up with ITV, so they might still get their news on the internet when they're surfing, or they might get alerts on their mobile phone but they will still go to ITV. And I just wonder how ITV as a commercial station (but also the BBC as another big beast in channel terms) get back on the front foot, because if you look at what you know, Sky has a massive profile as CNN has, but you look at how many people are watching Sky News at 6 o'clock and it's (what?) 70,000 if that, on a good day. Regional news at 6 o'clock on ITV is getting between 3 and 4 million viewers. You've already said 'News at Ten' is getting 2-and-a-bit [million] viewers and rising. These are still massive, massive audiences in TV terms, and you would have thought also in advertiser terms these are still massive audiences. How do we get back on to the front foot with Bernard and other people in the sales industry, who feel that those big audiences are not great audiences unless they are full of 20 and 25 year olds?
DM: Tough one. Shall I just fall back and say "I'm just a bloody journalist… how do I know this?... I didn't come here to be asked difficult questions like that!" [laughter] I think that first of all I agree with you entirely that we shouldn't be saying in the way we present ourselves or the manner in which we cover the stories and the manner in which we make our programmes… we shouldn't be throwing hints at the older generation and saying "This ain't for you any more", because they are our bedrock audience and a lot of them of course these days have a lot of disposable income. So I'm sure the advertisers wouldn't thank us if we did that, so we want to hang on to them and bring in more people from...... and how you do it is just in the process of every day, of building that programme, of trying to produce a programme that is the best it can be, of trying to ensure that you always bring to 'News at Ten' something that the BBC haven't got, or something that is more interesting or just delivered differently or is more exciting or whatever it might be, more enterprising? We're back to the man on the ship and that kind of stuff. So I don't think there's any kind of silver bullet here… it's a process, and what we have to is just work our boots off in order to deliver a kind of programme that will not alienate the core, older audience but will attract new viewers and younger viewers. It's just a tough job that we set out to do every morning and hopefully we achieve by 10 o'clock at night.
TH: Tariq Haif (?), Newcastle College. You're talking about user-generated content and the rise of your journalism and your links between the older generation of viewers and the new generation of viewers. Obviously the newer generation of viewers are coming through on the methods of user-generated content and video journalism… what are you doing to promote that and to get younger people involved in newsmaking for instance?
DM: What we're doing is we're doing a number of things. First of all we now make contact with our audience on a regular basis through the website… we know who they are, they know who we are, they can talk to us directly, they can send us video, they can send us their comments and thoughts… it's all on the website. We did start putting some of it on air, some of the best of it on air, but it got repetitious because the same people kept doing it every day, but maybe we'll do that again at some point. What we're also doing internally is we're saying we are completely changing the way that we work and the way that we operate. I talked to you earlier on about an £18 million investment that ITV have put into ITV News to change the whole way we produce news on desktop editing systems and so forth, so journalists and producers can edit their own stuff, instead of going into a little box with a craft editor (although we'll keep some craft editors of course). But we're also changing the way that we go out and news-gather. We're saying to young people who come in from universities or from college or from any other walk of life, "You can be a journalist… you know we will teach you how to use a small camera, go out on your own, see what you can find, see what you can get."
I started my career on a local paper in Derbyshire which printed on a Thursday. It went to print at about 1 o'clock in the afternoon, and I remember in only about my third or fourth week and the News Editor said "We haven't got a front page lead… go and get one", so I had about two hours to go and get some rubbish. Now, the point I'm making is that we can do that again now with television. We can say to young people, "We'll train you, we'll show you how to work a camera, we'll show you how to edit" — actually in fact they're showing us rather than us showing them these days — "Go out and see what you can find… you can be a journalist too." And I think that's a very healthy thing, and it will (again, I think) bring people 'into the tent' (as a famous CBS producer called Fred Friendly would say)… you've got to get them into the tent. And we can draw these people into the tent by the fact that we are now a very modern contemporary news organisation, using state-of-the-art technology both to gather news and to put it on the air. It's a very exciting place to be even for an old git like me.
MP: Two more questions and one of them is over here.
Peter Moth: It's more of a comment than a question. I don't think ITV is using your brand strongly enough. As a septuagenarian who has just had about a month or so in China (which I do on annual basis).... when I try to gather news from my phone or the internet or whatever, I find BBC there, I find Sky News there… I don't find ITN and ITV news there as a brand. It's a strong brand; it's a news brand I trust. You've got to move on that.
DM: Well, I wish it were in our gift. I mean we did have a 24 hour news channel for a while and ITV decided purely for commercial reasons — I've used the word commercial a lot tonight — for commercial reasons they decided it had to go. So we don't have a rolling news channel to compete with the CNN and BBC News 24 any more. I wish with all my heart that we did, and if we did we'd have to try and make it work commercially… but you know it's very expensive. You know people like Murdoch and CNN have got huge deep pockets, and they want their products seen all around the world for all sorts of reasons. and it's important to them (even if they take the hit financially) that they do that. It's not the case at ITV, it's a totally different commercial model. I would love it to be the case, but it isn't and it's not going to happen.
MP: Any more questions from the floor?
PR: Pam Royle, ITV Tyne Tees. Going back to fighting for ratings, commercial viability, sustainability and looking ahead to the future, my question is about regional news programmes. Even given that they continue to be very popular, with high ratings, do you think post-[digital]-switchover there will still be a place for regional news programmes on ITV1?
DM: Well, I'm in danger of slightly repeating what I said earlier. Again a short answer and a slightly longer answer. The short answer is "Yes I do." But why do I? The reason I do is because everybody working in regional news on ITV had a kick up the backside… we all had a kick up the backside a few years ago. The programmes had become rather stale and a bit predictable, and (as I said) weren't doing the job that they were supposed to do in every case. They were just doing story after story about crime and all the rest of it, and not doing their jobs properly. That's changed dramatically over the last few years. Regional news on ITV has upped its game considerably — they are now by and large... there are still one or two that I'm not sure got there yet, but most of them are fantastic shows that are warm and welcoming as well as being imbued with the day's news from that region. But the only way to make sure that they stay there is to keep doing that — the only way to make sure regional news can have a part to play in the future is if enough people choose to watch them.
It's not all about the bottom line here though, you see, and this is why I think you know Michael Grade and Simon and other people at ITV are very sophisticated in their thinking about this. It's not just a bottom line issue… if it was just a bottom line issue, frankly I think regional news would have a very short future in ITV. It's about what regional news gives to ITV in terms of making it distinctive and stand out from its competitors. Channel 4 would die to have regional news on Channel 4 — they would love it. They would really like that to happen, but we can't let that happen — we've got to be at the top of our game and keep delivering the finest products that we can deliver in order that the faith of people like Michael Grade has put in it is delivered. And you know it's.... they understand it, Michael Grade and other people at ITV, understand the value that regional gives to ITV — that connection with the audience, that tradition that the local personalities like you Pam and Phillipa and others become part of the community. And you do (and I know you do) a lot of stuff for no money… you do charity work and all the rest of it, and that's really part of it as well. We need to become so imbued with the community that we serve that we become indispensable in the regions, but it's got to be done from a basis of bloody hard work and daily commitment and that's happening, I am very pleased to say.
MP: And finally.... [laughter] When you're not watching the News, then what do you enjoy on the telly at the moment?
DM: What do I enjoy on the telly? Do you know I... this is the world's most boring answer... football. I mean I honestly don't get a chance to watch much, other than News and Sport. I watch any Sport that's going… anything at all and of course I watch an awful lot of News. But I do try and catch other stuff, particularly the ITV stuff that's happening now in the schedule… to have a view about it and to understand where it's coming from, what audience it's aiming for and how we might use that audience, and try catching that audience to take them forward. So I watch a bit of stuff out of duty and find I enjoy quite a lot actually. Everyone's been knocking 'Palace' — I don't know if anybody here has watched 'Palace', but I watched it the other night deliberately because people are talking about this show. It's getting 3 million people. I think it's a terrific show. It's up against fantastically difficult competition on BBC — I think it's up against the David Attenborough show isn't it? — anyway it's up against a good successful BBC.... but give it a chance and more people will come to shows like that and they'll get traction and so I watch a bit of that as well.
MP: Anyone watching 'Echo Beach'?
DM: I watch 'Moving Wallpaper' and then not 'Echo Beach', because I enjoy 'Moving Wallpaper' but I'm not keen on 'Echo Beach'… but don't tell anyone I said that!
MP: Thank you then to the Royal Television Society for organising the event; thank you to the Live Theatre for these excellent facilities....... and thank you very much indeed David Mannion. [Applause]