It’s a fact of media life that products have to keep changing, or
they will die. That’s the imperative which lies behind this week’s
revamp of Newsnight and Channel 4 News, which both unveiled their new
looks on Monday.
Fresh sets, new graphics, Channel 4 reporters as personalities. Editors
should be encouraged, within the bounds of what is in keeping with their
programme, to experiment with whatever it takes to keep the largest
possible audience watching. But they need more support.
For it is also the case that serious TV programmes like these must use
such makeovers to market themselves to new viewers. In fact, their whole
approach to publicity in an expansionary digital age where there are
distractions on all media fronts, needs shaking up. Their PR people need
to adopt the relentless determination to gain attention shown by the
promoters of pop-docs and soaps - with the aim of drawing attention to
the special qualities of analysis and top class information they are
It is the nature of news that exclusives on a hot subject, for example,
cannot be advertised long in advance, but a great deal more could be
done to remind viewers to switch on and check out what a hot programme
is up to.
Rereading the BBC’s ’News: The Future’ document, on which its current
policy is based, I was appalled to note that, under marketing, it simply
proposed better trailing and signposting, and the growth of interactive
exchanges - such as poster sites and direct mail - with viewers. It’s a
pressing cause for concern that news and regular current affairs strands
and the publicity machines that serve them are poor at boosting them as
’must watch’ programmes.
This need to proclaim your value has become even more critical in the
past few months because 1998 was dominated by a stream of negatives
which needs to be reversed, fast. The row over which BBC presenters
would front its main bulletins was protracted and silly. The decision to
axe News at Ten carried the clear message that mainstream ITV news
services only deserve the periphery of prime time television. Even the
much admired, but little watched, Channel 5 News, whose techniques, such
as stand-up presenters, are being widely copied in the revamps, found
itself hauled out of its established 8.30pm slot and dumped at 7pm.
So, while there’s a lot hanging on the current changes (it’s already
clear that Channel 4 News is the one to watch because it is much freer
to innovate than the BBC), the next few months will be crucial in seeing
whether television news and current affairs can restore its image. ITV
has the biggest challenge: to back ITN’s replacement programmes at
6.30pm and 11pm, and the much hyped Sixty Minutes current affairs show,
to the hilt. Nothing less will do.