Five for news 

1 June 2002 tbs.pm/1824

As viewers, we’ve never had so much choice. Where there was once three or four channels, now we’re being welcomed with open arms, into the multichannel age. With set top boxes capable of picking up free to air digital terrestrial transmissions under a hundred pounds, it’s never been cheaper to get more choice on your TV.

With choice come changes in viewing habits. People used to sit down, watch News At Ten before heading off to bed. That’s changed. Channel 4 started the ball rolling, scheduling hit comedies like Fraiser against the national news. Slowly but surely, viewing figures for news programmes are decreasing. Still, there’s always the national press you may say. Ah, that would be the national press that is also going through a bit of a readership crisis wouldn’t it?

The simple fact is that we’re just not taking an interest the news like we used to. Indeed, a survey conducted at the end of 2001 showed that whilst 80% of young people say that television news is their principle source of news and current affairs, and most of them turned over when it came on.

Popular belief in the news industry was that whilst viewers tended not to watch the news earlier in their life, they did when they reached middle age. Unfortunately, the same survey found that this wasn’t true either.

So people aren’t watching the news and they’re not reading news. What’s the solution? How can we persuade people to take notice of what’s going on in the world around them?

There is one possible answer and it has been running for over five years. The key to the solution may just be found over at Channel 5…

In its short life, Channel 5 has had a huge impact on the world of television news. With colourful sets and presenters perched on benches, Channel 5’s main news programmes have made a big impact, shaking up the public perception of the news. It’s also been doing something smaller and subtler.

Since day one, Channel 5 has provided short, regular news bulletins between its programmes. Broadcast every couple of hours, the format is very simple: a presenter reading the headlines, with a brief exert from a relevant interview, or just some pictures. As a format, it’s not particularly original – radio stations have been doing it for years, without the pictorial element of course. In July 2001, BBC Choice took the idea on, launching 60seconds, giving just under a minute to sum up the main stories.

At this point, some may cry foul, and bring out that dreaded phrase of “dumbing down”, but as a way of getting people to watch the news, the concept is pretty sound. Whilst viewers may switch stations when the main news bulletins come on, they’re more likely to stick with the channel and watch a summary if they’re waiting for the next programme. Is it not better to get viewers to watch some news rather than none at all?

Unfortunately, with just two channels doing it, many viewers will still be falling through the news net. As the numbers of people with satellite and cable increases, the chance that people will watch the traditional news bulletins also decreases. Instead of having just Channel 4 pumping out popular programming against News at Ten, the viewer could have hundreds of channels all vying for their attention, the majority of which are news-less.

Some may at this point gesture towards the plethora of rolling news networks like Sky News and ITN available in multichannel homes. These of course have a place in modern TV, giving the viewer a chance to catch the news when they want to rather than at lunchtime, early evening and late at night.

The sad fact is that many viewers will pass over these stations just as they do with the traditional news bulletins. However channels like Sky One and E4 provide the perfect opportunity to provide short summaries and roundups, in just the same way that Channel 5 has.

Both channels have good audience shares in multichannel homes and are targeted at those in the 16-35 age range -precisely those who are more likely to turn the old-style news off. Even better, both channels have the resources easily available to provide simple news bulletins.

For Sky, there is even a strong incentive to start such a service on Sky One. Whilst once Sky News had the UK rolling news market to itself, increased competition in the genre, is eating into Sky News’s market share. Providing summaries on their sister channel, Sky One, provides the perfect opportunity for some cross promotion. A viewer, catching the news after Buffy or Star Trek, may see a story that catches their eye. Where better to find out more on this news, than the rolling news channel provided by the same company?

Short news summaries should, of course, never be seen as a replacement for the main news bulletins. In the world of multichannel TV, complete with a plethora of rolling news channels, there will always be a role for the packaged news bulletin, providing a comprehensive look at the day’s news in half an hour.

However the simple fact is that people don’t watch the news, and this will always be so. If a short radio-style news summary can make more viewers take notice of what is going on in the world, then this should be welcomed with opened arms.

There is always the hope as well, that people watching these small summaries, will pick up on a story, and go off to find out more. How many viewers will actually do this, is another matter. There will always be people who take a keen interest in the news, just as there will be those who take no interest in it. And then there are those in-between – people who may well take an interest, but need to be prodded towards it. Channel 5 has shown us the way and it’s time for others to follow.

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