Media Analysis: News 24 revamp aims to rival Sky

As the BBC's 24-hour news outlet heads upmarket in a quest for 'broadsheet' status, Ian Hall reports on the coming of age of Auntie's rolling news operation

During one of the most sensational breaking-news stories of recent months - the capture of deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein - BBC News 24 lost its audio feed just as Tony Blair began to spell out Downing Street's reaction.

As viewers nationwide switched to rival channels, which were suffering no such sound problems, Television Centre bosses eager for News 24 to shake off its reputation as a second-fiddle service compared to the breaking-news king, Sky News, must have groaned with frustration.

News 24 was revamped last month, following a government-commissioned report by former Financial Times editor Richard Lambert, which concluded that the BBC's rolling news offer needed to be more 'distinctive' than its more established Murdoch-backed rival.

BBC director of news Richard Sambrook has conceded that News 24 has failed to punch its weight, given the BBC's vast news-gathering resources.

Although a flashier set and other presentational changes have been made, few substantive changes to content are planned that will greatly impact on PR professionals attempting to raise their clients' profiles on the channel.

A BBC spokesman confirms that News 24 plans to head in a more 'broadsheet' direction, extending coverage of regional UK news and international stories, although it will 'continue to' target the ABC1, 35-plus age group.

Network becoming 'broadsheet'

Following Lambert's criticism, the spokesman adds that, as far as its home coverage is concerned, News 24 will 'aspire to become more of a UK news channel, as opposed to the metropolitan image that the continuous channels are perceived to have'.

Head of TV news Roger Mosey and deputy head of TV news Rachel Attwell oversee the channel, but one significant personnel change is former media correspondent Nick Higham's new role, providing analytical comment on news stories. In addition, Julia Caesar has moved to round-up show Business Today from BBC World.

The spokesman advises PROs to contact individual journalists direct with stories or call the BBC News press office, but cautions: 'PROs need to get to know the channel. The number of callers who aren't familiar with it astounds me. I give more time to those who are au fait with our products.'

The BBC will set up 'new, active partnerships' between News 24 and the BBC's nations and regions operations, aiming to 'better report life in the UK' and a world duty editor will boost the channel's international coverage.

The success of Sky Digital and Freeview means that more than 50 per cent of UK homes now have access to rolling news channels. Whereas just a couple of years ago, rolling news channels were widely perceived by PROs as far less useful profile-raising conduits compared to news on terrestrial channels, heightened access now means they are increasingly targeted.

News 24 has an average weekly reach of 4.2 million viewers, against Sky News's 4.8 million, but the latter has a reputation as very much the preferred service for breaking news. During the opening salvos of the Iraq war, three times as many viewers reportedly tuned in to Sky News than News 24, despite the BBC's historic reputation as the pre-eminent UK news gatherer.

The ITV News Channel, which launched in 2000 and is the other non-specialist UK continuous news service, is very much playing catch-up in terms of viewing figures.

Value of rolling news is growing

David Oakley, head of broadcast PR at video communications agency Broadview, says rolling news channels are increasingly valued by clients,largely due to their increasinging availability.

Oakley adds it is too early to tell to what extent News 24's revamp will affect PR opportunities. However, on Sky News he says that whereas it 'used to run a lot of packaged stories two and was always a banker for PR stories', this is no longer the case.

He says that as Sky now 'leaps on the big stories, such as (the) Soham (murder trial)' and relies much more on 'using talking heads', the channel prefers to use different spokespeople every two hours, to keep the bulletins fresh.

One market specialist estimates that four minutes' worth of coverage on the 24-hour news channels can often be distilled to just 15-second slots on terrestrial news bulletins.

The increasing access to all rolling news channels and News 24's revamp mean this is very much a market for PROs to watch, with the BBC's digital news offering presenting an increasingly useful PR conduit in its own right, as well as a useful way to get clients' cases better known across the BBC's vast news-gathering operation.

Useful, of course, providing the audio wires have been plugged in.

CONTACT DETAILS AT NEWS 24 AND ITS DOMESTIC RIVALS

BBC News 24

- Contact journalists direct or email uknewsplan@bbc.co.uk

- Alternatively contact the BBC News press office on 020 8576 8928

Sky News

- Phil Wardman, head of home news

- Vince McGarry, news editor - planning

- Releases to news.plan@bskyb.com or call the forward-planning desk on

020 7705 3816; or, for an on-the-day story, call 020 7705 3232 ITV News

- Dominic Crossley-Holland, editor

- Ben Rayner, deputy editor

- For specific stories contact advance interview producer Peter Robinson

- For general stories email itvplanning@itn.co.uk, following up with a

phone call to the planning desk on 020 7430 4210

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