Originally published on ATV Today on Thursday 25th October 2007, we marked the forty years of ITN’s News at Ten.
“We didn’t know what was expected of us. We didn’t know what the programme would be like. There were no, thank God, focus groups in those days to tell us what was expected of us.” – Andrew Gardner
ITN News At Ten was a revolutionary programme, the first half-hour hard news production in primetime. It prided itself on removing the spin and bringing facts and news as it really was. On July 3 1967 Andrew Gardener and Alistair Burnett presented the first edition.
“The first night was rather like building an enormous new aeroplane and then seeing whether it flew. And it just about flew, but then circled the airport and landed rather clumsily. We had to improve its performance enormously, and we did.” – Nigel Ryan – Editor & Chief Executive, ITN, 1968-77
The ITV schedulers had pencilled in the news programme for only a 12-week trial run.
“The ITV bosses mistrusted half an hour of news. They were convinced that after 12-weeks, it would collapse.” – Andrew Gardner
However, by the end of the first week, many ITV regional bosses wanted to axe News At Ten immediately. They felt there wasn’t a need for 30 minutes of news, and the first programmes may not have helped to change their minds…
“The first night of News At Ten, was the worst possible night that any television journalist could ever imagine in their wildest nightmare. There was nothing around, any story we had could have been the lead story.” – Andrew Gardner
The early lack of news hadn’t gone un-noticed by ITV executives, who were not happy with the network airing a half hour slot of news five nights a week…
“The ITV companies didn’t give up, having failed to abort the pregnancy, they tried to strangle the baby in its cradle, but we fought back. And in the summer of 1969 we had all five editions of News At Ten in one week in the top ten programmes. We had 12-million watching every night, and we knew we were safe.” – Nigel Ryan – Editor & Chief Executive, ITN, 1968-77
ITN News At Ten is credited for creating the ‘reporter package’ – prior to News At Ten launching reporters would write a script and send it back, with the film, to the ITN studios to have it voiced by a newsreader.
With News at Ten things were done differently. The reporter recorded the commentary in the location of the story and the film edited to fit that. It made the reporter the key person. Sandy Gall believes that “The reporting was better, more informed, more on the spot” because of that change.
Sandy also credits this rawer reporting as part of the programmes success with the viewers, and the fact they were seeing it warts and all:
“The ratings were very high, in those early days. People apparently were prepared to take any amount of doom and gloom, because that’s what was happening and they wanted to know.” – Sandy Gall
The bosses of News At Ten also credited the arrival of satellite for the success of the programme too. Before the 1960s reports would have to be sent back to the studio for broadcast, which could take a day at the most, but with the advent of link-ups, News At Ten could broadcast footage within hours.
“There was a sense that people were doing something radical and dramatic.” – Trevor McDonald
It was a risk that paid off, the link-ups, via Telstar, cost £7,000 for 20 minutes. It could have been an expense too far for ITV bosses, but a story covered first on News At Ten in 1967 saw the coverage the next day in the press not so much discussing the news story, but more about how quickly ITN had managed to show the footage of the event unfolding.
Andrew Gardener recalls how the footage was speedily sent to London from America back in the ‘60s: “In those days the film was taken to San Francisco, it was sent by landline to Andover then transmitted by the Telstar satellite – that was only acquired for 20 minutes – it was picked up in Bordeaux from there to Zurich, and from there finally to London.”
Another success of the programme was that it wasn’t interested in ‘celebrity faces’ unlike, especially BBC News now, where pretty presenters are employed for news shows over depth and experience. News at Ten was gritty and to the point. It didn’t wrap itself up in fancy gimmicks.
Julia Somerville comments: “It was a programme presented by journalists for the public. And it was this that really gave the programme its edge. The fact if the seams showed it could all be incorporated into the fact it was human beings giving you the news. It was humans who had probably been out in the field and covered the stories they were talking about.”
News At Ten, through its 30 minute slot also brought for the first time a lot more footage, and in its late slot, more graphic footage than had been broadcast in news before. This includes showing the stark reality of famine and starvation in Africa in 1968.
This groundbreaking thinking also got the programme into controversial territory from time to time. News At Ten footage from the Biafran War of 1968, was deemed distasteful. The footage concerned an ITN reporter interviewing a young African man as he was being tied up by federal troops. He was later in the footage shot dead. Screening un-nerving imagery was something however News At Ten would never shy away from.
Such was the prestige of the ITN brand and the News At Ten name, everyone wanted to work on the programme. It has been noted that during the 1970s Jeffery Archer walked into ITN suggesting that he should take over the ‘Head Of Sport’ role for News At Ten. Nigel Ryan – Editor & Chief Executive at ITN at the time declined his offer. Later he commented that he felt Jeffery’s talent lay in fiction.
Rivalry between ITN and the BBC was rife, in the days when reports were all recorded on film there would often be a race to get the footage back to London first as Jon Snow recalls:
“Very often the competition with the BBC was who could get their film onto the earliest flight.”
But even if you got your footage back to ITN, whether it would still air or not was another hurdle, Jon Snow again:
“Its incredible to think back really that for one thing just the mere fact of getting the film out of the camera and onto the screen involved at least a three hour hiatus while it got bathed in a stinking morass of chemicals in the basement. And you had to really negotiate your way through this, as where you were in the pyre of under developed or undeveloped film absolutely made it whether you got onto News at Ten or not.”
And while News At Ten originally set out to be journalist lead rather than celebrity lead, it was also one of the first programmes to make a ‘star’ of its newscasters. In 1978 Anna Ford became the first female anchor for the programme and was soon a huge hit with the public. With this came interest from newspapers and magazines, a celebrity ITN newsreader was born.
“It was the news that put the world to bed at night and a lot of people watched News at Ten and that was it. The Queen hadn’t died, the world hadn’t stopped.” – said Anna Ford in 1999.
The next big change in newsgathering was the arrival of videotape cameras in the late 1980s; with the ditching of film, it saw the whole process of the news stories hitting the air happen a lot faster. It was at this time too that News At Ten started taking more advantage of the satellite links. Live editions of the programme were beginning to be broadcast from around the world, leaving the studio presentation behind for big events.
But these advances in technology are also credited to the downfall of the old-style News At Ten, as Jon Snow comments:
“Now really television has completely changed. You can draw in pictures from around the world and then tell a reporter what story you want told. You can’t risk it seems these days, to say to somebody, ‘I don’t care what anyone else has seen, I just want to know what you’ve seen and what your camera has filmed.’ That was the beauty of News At Ten, it was one man and his camera going out to a story and telling it from one persons point of view. Contrast that with today, where most stories will have at least five, six up to twenty sources of pictures in it. And that de-personalises it. And News At Ten was built on the personalised report.”
In 1991 to help stem the decline in the “personal touch” News At Ten was dropped from two anchors to one. Trevor McDonald was to be the face of the show. He explains why: “I think the idea behind the change to one single anchor was quite clear, it was about branding. It was about trying to get a close identification between the programme and the person who was doing it.”
ITN News At Ten became a staple part of the schedules, more so it had become part of British culture. This was to change in 1998, when ITV decided that because of the advent of 24-hour news channels and the internet, News At Ten was no longer needed in its traditional role, and the slot could make way for ‘higher rating’ programmes. It would also leave the schedule clear for movies to air un-interrupted.
Gerald Kaufman MP, chairman of the Commons media committee, was not impressed with the proposals. He said the broadcaster was not taking its public service role seriously: “They are saying that because of ratings, not because of service, they want to get rid of a programme broadcast right in the middle of the peak hour. It’s for money.”
As useful as a bunch of daffodils – the television regulator – known as ITC back then, (now Ofcom) approved the plans in September of 1998. ITC chairman Sir Robin Biggam said of the changes: “It is right to give ITV the opportunity to put its plans to the test. Of course, many viewers value News at Ten as an institution, but as a high-quality news programme its audiences have continued to decline.”
The week of the final broadcast saw the programme lamented by many programmes including Channel 4 airing a special documentary “And Finally” which looked at the life and times of the news show. Andrew Gardner, Martin Lewis, Trevor McDonald, Alistair Stewart, Julia Somerville and Dermot Murnaghan all appeared on This Morning to discuss the demise of the show such was the interest in the end of News At Ten.
The final programme aired on March 5 1999. It is safe to say, the axing was a disaster. ITV ran trailers plugging their ‘New At Ten’ slot, however the promotion failed to win viewers over. All of the replacement programmes failed to get the ratings the ITN production had. More so the replacement ITV Nightly News, failed to gain many viewers at 11pm.
The only success from the 1999 revamp was the Evening News, which was moved from 5.30 to 6.30pm, and gained the best ratings in the slot since Crossroads vacated that half hour in 1988. However the new shows hadn’t improved the ITV news output overall, which the television regulator would later note.
A week after the last broadcast original hosts Andrew Gardener and Sir Alistair Burnett joined final presenter Trevor McDonald to accept an award for News at Ten’s contribution to television news from the Broadcast Press Guild. Two weeks after News At Ten finally ended original presenter Andrew Gardener died of a massive heart attack.
In 2000 the ITC had noticed a decline in the ITV News ratings and quality. They informed station bosses that ITV has breached its public service obligations.
ITN/ITV ITC stated that ITV News “Has suffered a substantial loss of viewers to its evening news programmes, and its share of combined BBC and ITV news audience during the first year of the new schedule. The total audience for the early and late news bulletins has fallen by 13.9 percent.
The changes to the schedule have also had an unacceptable impact overall on regional news audiences with a decline in aggregate audiences for main regional news magazines of 22 per cent.” In July of 2000, they force ITV to move the news out of the 11 O’clock hour.
ITV decided to return the news to 10 O’clock, four or sometimes just three nights a-week. The ‘new’ News At Ten’ on ITV also failed to bring in the viewers. This was a period when the show was dubbed by critics as ‘News at When’ due to the programme actually rarely starting at 10pm.
The other problem for the ‘new’ version of the show was the fact after ITV decided to ditch their News At Ten, the BBC stepped in and moved their programme from 9pm to 10. The watered down News At When only lasted 20 minutes, and didn’t stand a chance of winning over viewers from the 30-minute BBC version – especially when the BBC show aired five-days a week at 10pm, giving viewers the consistent service ITV were failing to dish up.
The two shows went head-to-head three or four days a-week until 2003 when ITV finally gave up the battle. In October of 2003 the company announce they would – after discussion with the regulator – be moving the News At When to 10.30pm. The programme launched on February 2nd 2004, with Trevor McDonald continuing as host.
Less than two years later in December 2005 Sir Trevor retired from ITN and the programme was taken over by Mark Austin. However even after Trevor McDonald’s departure the gossip and suggestion that News At Ten would return hasn’t diminished.
In October 2007 it was reported the show, and Sir Trevor would be returning to ITV screens in 2009. Whether it bares any resemblance to the groundbreaking show that made it a household brand is another matter. Incidentally the man who originally decommissioned the programme, David Liddiment, has since said it was a mistake to axe News At Ten
We will leave the final word with Nigel Ryan, Editor & Chief Executive of ITN, 1968-77 who sums up the original News At Ten:
“It was great fun in those days. It was the days before television became a business, it was a public service.”
[source: ITN Factual]