ITV's News at Ten returned to television screens two weeks ago following a three-year absence. The much-publicised return has seen former News at Ten anchor Sir Trevor McDonald back on TV every week night.
But this time Sir Trevor is not alone. In a new look for the programme, the original anchor is joined by former Sky News presenter Julie Etchingham as co-host. It is a move that some commentators have said demonstrates the channel's determination to be seen as a serious rival to the BBC's news bulletins. ITV News presenter Mark Austin also joins the team and will be co-anchoring on-location reports and hosting Friday's Late News.
Despite a substantial level of advertising to herald the show's return, initial figures show the BBC's rival Ten O'Clock programme is winning the ratings war. On Tuesday 22 January, a week after its launch, it attracted only 2.1 million viewers, well behind the BBC's 5.1 million.
However, News at Ten remains a prime target for PROs. 'Alongside the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, it is the one clients most want to appear on,' says Shout Communication's founding director and former ITN news editor Keren Haynes.
She believes that the programme's success in the past can be attributed to the fact that 'its production values and graphics are extremely high and it is a very slick, polished programme'.
The ITN team has worked hard at cultivating a fresher look for the programme to show it is not just the old format back on screens. The opening title sequence of the late 1980s has been remade, the backdrop to the studio is of the Thames, and the presenters have clear screens on either side of their desks to show statistics.
With competition from other TV news bulletins, news websites and national papers, the News at Ten team has to innovate to pull in the viewers. It aims to do this by providing more analysis from the day, explains ITV News at Ten editor Alex Chandler.
'At the time of day it is screened viewers want more than a news summary. Our agenda is to be informative and thought-provoking. We cannot be seen to be giving a predictable line on the day's news stories.'
With this agenda in mind, PROs are expected to approach the TV station with more than just simple announcement stories. 'We never really run product placement stories because the TV industry is so heavily regulated. There are exceptions such as Apple's iPhone because they are a cultural phenomenon. It would have to appeal to a mass audience,' says Chandler.
Chandler adds that if it is 'interesting, unusual, life-changing or being talked about' a story has a shot at being covered. As time is of the essence, if a press release is time-sensitive Chandler suggests an embargo and opportunity to pre-film.
In order to give a story an edge, Markettiers4dc founder and chairman, Howard Kosky, suggests: 'Always be thinking of the photo opportunity. The more you can do to provide them with the big picture the better your chances are. If you can offer filming opportunities then it will be more appealing.'
For Chandler, offering the story as an exclusive could make a real difference: 'If you can bring the audience new information it will be more appealing to us when choosing the stories.'
While the programme's return is still in its infancy, Shout's Haynes believes it will continue to be difficult to pitch stories while it fights for exclusives. 'Each night the programme is under intense scrutiny to see if it is pulling in the viewers. The programme editor is looking for the "show stoppers", such as its exclusive interview with Diana's former lover Hasnat Khan.'
Aside from covering the national news, the TV station has a distinct identity that PROs need to understand, says Haynes. It focuses on environmental and human interest stories: 'ITN's priority is to make its stories relevant to its audience to keep them interested.'
She admits News at Ten's tone is tabloid, pointing to its extensive coverage of Amy Winehouse's drug use. And that this could mean clients will perceive the BBC's Ten O'Clock News as the 'more prestigious' evening news programme.
Nevertheless she, and other observers, are quick to recognise the PR opportunities that this brings.
- History ITV's News at Ten was first dropped in 1999 after nearly 32 years on air, in order to make room for films to be aired in the prime time slot. The programme returned again for three years from 2001, after which ITV decided on 10.30pm as the time for its main news bulletin.
The daily editorial conference takes place at 9.30am. A production meeting to work out logistics of filming and interviews takes place at 11.30am. The order of the programme is completed by 5.30pm.
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A FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT
Nick Murray-Leslie, financial markets director, Chatsworth Communications
When the Soc Gen fraud broke last week ITN called to interview me, and packaged my comments well in an informed piece, taking a counterpoint to the BBC view that the fraud had contributed to the markets falling earlier in the week.
The optimism and energy in the ITN newsroom is palpable. They are a pleasant and energetic team and we like dealing with them when we handle requests for client interviews.
This has to do with good old-fashioned passion for news. In team numbers, the News at Ten crew is a David to auntie Beeb's Goliath, so what a coup it must feel when it gets a scoop, which has been happening with remarkable regularity.
The new ITN ethos is that news should be a programme and not a bulletin. The focus is on reducing complex issues to the micro rather than macro level - effectively 'what does this mean for the man in the street'.
Bigger certainly does not mean better - you see that in PR companies often enough, when a smaller team with energy and passion outpaces bigger rivals.