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The Ten o’clock News conundrum


By Andrew Plant

For decades, we knew where we were. Newspapers competed for eyeballs on trains and over breakfast tables. Broadcasters piled money into early, family-friendly shows and saved the heavy politics for the adult-only hours. Radio found its groove in traffic jams, stalwart soap-operas and deeper political discussions. 

In other words, they knew their audience.

Three different meals, constantly trying to tempt the appetites of those dining elsewhere – but separate recipes for different diets, in a food hall which enjoyed enough customers to go round.

The internet has been a hurricane through the restaurant area. The aftermath has not only mixed up all the menus, seeing newspapers entering the TV market and broadcasters prioritizing print; it’s also blown in massive competition, fighting for every drop of attention from customers who now have more choice than ever before.

Suddenly newspaper headlines were out of date even as the physical objects hit the shelves, exposing the weaknesses of the medium in a world that had lost the need to wait. Most papers evolved into digital news platforms with paywalls and a side-line paper edition, tiptoeing gingerly into TV, marching into radio and podcasting. 

Broadcasters didn’t suffer the same sickness – they could react to live events with enviable speed. But they experienced new problems of their own. TV in a world of five channels was one thing – TV in a world of 200 channels, and a dozen streaming services, is another thing entirely. 

Take one issue currently causing BBC executives sleepless nights: What do you do with the Ten O’clock News? For decades it’s been The Big One: any presenter or correspondent will tell you that ‘THE TEN’, as it’s called in the industry, was top of the pecking order in the TV news universe. On Radio 4, it’s The Today Programme followed by PM in the afternoon. 

There is a long and occasionally updated ‘news priority’ document, detailing which programme gets first dabs in a breaking news situation. It depends on the time of day, but when there is only one reporter on the scene of a story, the phone doesn’t stop ringing; there is a very hungry beast waiting for content on the other end of that call. Believe me, it helps to know who is ‘officially’ first in line.

But recently, and I mean this year, that priority has changed. And it’s a big change. Really big. But you won’t have noticed.

Digital is now top of that list. If the News Channel want a live TV ‘hit’ with a reporter, but the webpage also wants some copy? Write the web copy first. The TV and radio can wait. That is the first time TV has been pushed into second place, on paper at least. And that is a massive change in UK media.

Phones are king. News consumption is instant. Alerts mean headlines are old in ten minutes. The competition for eyeballs has moved from paper to screen, from daily to immediately. And where the audiences go, the news organisation must follow. 

Back to the Ten issue: it is still the ‘flagship’, not least because it’s where the most experienced, most influential presenters, producers and editors still work – and that has been their priority for their entire careers. But streaming services are sucking away its soul. The audience is dwindling. Slowly, inexorably. 

People settle down in the evenings, mostly. They used to settle down with a 9pm drama on BBC or ITV, and the following news bulletins would inherit some of that drama audience, and some new appointment-to-view eyes. People are still settling down – but they’re doing it with Netflix or Disney or Amazon or even YouTube. 

And the problem is, they’re not coming back again at 21.59. They stay gone. And so the audience for the Ten is falling away. Interestingly, the audience for the Six isn’t doing quite the same thing – it seems a lot of people still come home and check in with the world while they make dinner.

And, of course, most people aren’t streaming at 6pm.

And here’s another problem: the Ten has an audience, still. Smaller than before, but loyal. They are loyal because they like the format. They know it. It’s reliable. The problem is this: do you keep the same formula, keep that audience happy, and wave bye-bye to newer, younger audiences as they get comfy elsewhere? You must replace that audience. At the very least, one in, one out. If it’s a private members club with no new applicants, then when enough members leave, the club closes. So do you shake things up, appeal to younger, more diverse audiences, but risk losing the still-significant number of core viewers you already have? 

If you know the answer, please let someone at the BBC know.

The UK media industry has changed faster than anyone realised. We now have four 24/7 news channels – four! – a number that has doubled in the past couple of years, with BBC News and Sky now competing with GB News and TalkTV, further diluting the potential audience in what were already extremely shallow waters. 

The BBC has announced a merger between the domestic news channel and BBC World – a cost-saving measure forced in part by dwindling numbers of licence-fee payers. That is a separate story for another time. But the point is this: news consumption is all moving in one direction – straight into your pocket. That leaves newspapers and TV bulletins competing for audiences that are fast disappearing. At the same time, MORE competition has entered the market. 

Eventually, something will have to give.

Andrew is the new Director of Public Relations at Cratus. He has spent 17 years at the coal-face of UK media working on-camera for BBC News and most recently as a Correspondent for the BBC’s Six and Ten o’clock News, the Today Programme and the BBC digital front and live pages. 

If you would like to find out more about what our Cratus PR can offer you, please contact Andrew Plant. 

The Ten o’clock News conundrum