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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

News at when?

News At Ten is broadcast, according to its defenders, 'as the Old World is going to sleep and the New World is waking up'. That explains that 'boyyng' sound which punctuates the headlines then; it's Zebedee springing in to shout 'Time for bed'. The suggestion that the news might be moved to an earlier slot produced in Smith and Major syncopated hyperventilations of fury. Apparently ten o'clock has been ordained by God as the perfect time for a news broadcast and to put it back half an hour is to eat our chips off the Ark of the Covenant.

Of course, eating is what this is all about. News At Ten is seen as an important news programme because it comes on air just as important people are finishing their after dinner drinks and settling down for the night. The poor, on the other hand, stopped eating hours before. By the time News at Ten comes on, they're starting to feel hungry again. And this is the problem.

Where the BBC's main news acts as a curtain-raiser to post-watershed 'adult' viewing, News at Ten is more of an interruption. To show a grown-up movie mid-week, for instance, ITV has to chop it in half and drape it around Trevor's shoulders. There are very few movies that gain from a 40-minute parenthesis crammed with the latest on the Queen Mother's fish swallowing and a rundown of your local redundancies (though I did find myself thinking wistfully of these things during Howard's End). It's not just movies of course. Ten-forty is not the sexiest start-time in the world, so ITV has to give up after the news, filling up the schedule with Families, Cell Block H and so on. This means that there is effectively only one hour of adult prime time on ITV each night. The pressure from within to move the monolith is therefore just as great as the political pressure to leave it where it is.

The strange thing is that while ITV has taken so much flak for even thinking of moving the news, nobody seems to mind that the programme itself is now a hideous travesty. Of course, it would be a bit much for the Tories to complain about ITV's production values; like a vampire complaining about its victim's poor circulation. The money that was once spent on extensive news coverage is now in the Treasury, thanks to the Broadcasting Act. The result is that News at Ten now looks more like the programmes that follow it - Cell Block H and Married with Children - than those that precede it.

Take a look at the design. Above Trevor's grizzled head, a map of Europe; to his left a boxed illustration of a current story (a fish bone perhaps) and next to him on the floor, two faces of Big Ben. Conjunctivitis is easier on the eye. It's hard to fault Trevor himself but you wouldn't say he was comfortable unless you were an intensive care nurse. 'Comfortable but critical. We're not switching off the machine tonight.' He tries his best, like a minor royal or an England footballer doing a jocular charity appearance on Cheggers Plays Pop. Like Richard III, he's a great guy but he lacks a vehicle.

In fact, the timing is the most important thing about News at Ten. The lateness of the slot gives heavyweight politicos an opportunity to think through a response to the events of the day and thus have the last word. It's also possible to leak an idea to News at Ten after close of business, gauge reaction to it next morning on Radio Four's Today (the real establishment news programme), and, if it flops, deny it when you get back to the despatch box. To some extent this function has already been stolen by BBC 2's Newsnight. The fall of News at Ten and the rise of Newsnight encapsulates the change in the nature of British broadcasting. The comprehensive, all-embracing institution has given way to the narrowly defined, late-night market niche; the democrat succumbs to the specialist. At the opposite end to Newsnight is the Big Breakfast bulletin, which is the first terrestrial news programme not to even try. It's like watching Jackie.

It is ridiculous to lament the quality of news or to suggest that news is not lucrative. CNN is more or less the most profitable American network, and the BBC's version - WSTV - is its only recent success story. But both CNN and WSTV are more extreme examples of the Newsnight effect. CNN is not aimed at people, but at hotel bedrooms and (apparently) at the White House toilet (presumably this is where Bill was sitting when he decided to dump his payload on Saddam).

The modern news service does not set out to represent the nation to itself. Instead it represents the Establishment to itself. It works by a kind of political narcissism. Important people see it as important because they see other important people on it. CNN has a big advantage here in that its global nature gives its guests the aura of global importance (as long as they get your name right; I have heard a reference to David Hurd on CNN). The news network therefore becomes an extension of the debating chamber rather than a critical eye turned upon it. The result is a coverage democracy in which hours of exposure rather than actual votes is a deciding factor in policy-making.

CNN's emphasis on world rather than domestic affairs has its roots in the idealism of its founder, Ted Turner. An idealism creepily expressed in its slogan 'One world, one vision, one country'. Working from his home state of Georgia he hoped to make CNN (originally dubbed 'Chicken Noodle Network' by its detractors) into a vehicle for international understanding. Instead it has helped to crystallise an international political cartel. Its internationalist perspective has come to reflect and to confirm America's view of the rest of the world as something that should have its ass whipped until it starts acting more like America.

CNN set out to make itself into a forum in which international broadcasters of many lands could tell the rest of the world about their home state. The root of its current power lies in its failure to recruit non-American anchors. It thus became a vehicle for peeved Americans to tell the folks back home how much better off they were. WSTV on the other hand has fashioned itself on the polyglot World Service model. Interestingly this means it is wiping the floor with CNN in the new powerhouse economies of the Far East. It even beats CNN in Taiwan. WSTV isn't a pure news service. It gives the BBC a good dumping market for some of its own product. This accounts for the insane popularity of Barry Norman in India (apparently he has been invited to run for parliament), and the semi-religious awe with which Russ Abbot is viewed in Thailand.

CNN and WSTV each have an epic project. Newsnight has its cosy, clubby pact with Westminster. What has News at Ten got? Nothing. For it is addressed to ordinary people and what part do they have to play now. 'Time for bed', said Zebedee?
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 58, August 1993

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