A better News 24

By Ian Beaumont

The government wants a better BBC News 24. Easy argues Ian Beaumont

The government ordered a review of the BBC's domestic 24-hour news channel and the results were most interesting.

It recommended that News 24 should give more world news coverage, cover a broader range of UK news from across the country, improve the sport, business and entertainment news services and provide regional perspectives on the day's news - local, national and international.

Some areas of the media - as usual - took a few words in that report, and spun it out to mean something it wasn't. So what better excuse is there to take an objective look at the service and see what changes, if any, are required.

It is fair to say that BBC News 24 has a generally superb service, with a quality that rivals Sky News, whilst the ITV News Channel has some way to go to match either channel. Satellite services, such as CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg and CNBC are much more global in production and focus and so are less appealing to UK viewers generally, whilst CNBC and Bloomberg are also specialist business news channels and so get smaller audiences.

Further confusing the picture are the two sports news services, Sky Sports News and Eurosport News.

But to look at the official BARB ratings, it is clear which services actually register most with UK viewers. Sky News leads in the news channel race, with BBC News 24 just behind and ITV News in a poor 3rd place.

CNN, EuroNews and Fox News do not register enough viewers to be listed. Out of the two business news services, CNBC actually scores enough viewers to be listed, Bloomberg doesn't. Sky Sports News leads the Sports News channels category with Eurosport News a long way back. Sky Sports News even scores a higher share of viewers than ITV News does, although ITV News beats it in terms of reach.

Overall the viewing figures would seem to indicate that BBC News 24 is one of the more watched news and information channels, which says a lot for the quality of the service. If it wasn't a quality product, people wouldn't watch it.

Programmes like Gate 24, Booktalk, Hardtalk, Liquid News, Talking Movies and Simpson's World manage to sit comfortably in amongst the regular hourly news, business, sports and weather updates.

News 24 already has more world news coverage than any other channel, although it is in a five-hour block overnight from 1am to 6am. Whilst there is also a World News bulletin at 9.30am, there is no set world news coverage in peak periods. I believe that two extra bulletins of world news are required, one in the afternoon and one in prime time.

Sports news is one area where some improvement is needed, albeit really rather slight. New on-screen graphics and re-focusing of some slots during the week will cover most of the ground that is needed. Saturday afternoons really need the work, as that is most people's most visual period for sport.

It should be the period when sports news is most in focus on a news channel. The only other times should be on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, as, again, this is a very visual period for sport - mainly football.

Regional coverage is another area where work is needed. The report into News 24 wanted more coverage from the regions and more regional perspective on world and national events.

At the moment, only S4C's Newyddion and BBC 2W's News and Sport provide a regional perspective on world and national news on TV. But both of those are aimed at Wales, not the UK as a whole. BBC Local Radio, along with BBC Radios Wales, Scotland and Ulster, do the same kind of job on the nation's radio dials.

The answer to more regional perspective of world and national events seems clear. Regionalise BBC News 24. On digital terrestrial, create hourly opt-out slots of around 2 minutes starting at 6am in Breakfast and finishing around the 11pm bulletins. Then you'll have a more regional atmosphere in that the channel is coming from newsrooms across the country as well as the main one in White City.

You'll find that - slowly - more news from outside the political arena of Westminster and the Greater London area will filter into the editorial content of News 24, which is after all what we are trying to achieve.

Let us not forget that Scotland has a parliament of its own, and Wales has an assembly, as does London. There is little reason why Westminster must get so much attention, especially when BBC Parliament is so freely available as well.

The regions need to be more in the spotlight on News 24. There is no BBC regional TV all day service - nothing like BBC Local Radio. News 24, for now at least, really should be the closest thing we have to a true regional network of BBC TV stations. BBC-1 is basically a national station with regional opt-outs. News 24 would be the same, but with more frequent ones, maybe even regional documentary and current affairs programming at the weekend.

Giving the regions slots on News 24 would also give the channel a distinct advantage over Sky News, although the ITV News Channel could potentially match it with a leap of imagination by its owners. Sky News would require a massive investment to even come close to matching what either BBC News 24 or the ITV News Channel could achieve with resources they already have at their disposal.

Entertainment news was another area where improvement was needed according to the report. However, the BBC already provides a daily service on BBC Choice - soon to be BBC Three - called Liquid News, which was originated on BBC News 24 as 'Zero 30'.

For News 24 to create another entertainment news programme, effectively duplicating Liquid News, would be a seriously silly waste of resources. But Liquid News could make a daily appearance in a 15 minute compressed version on News 24, without all the guests and commentary - just the reports and live one-to-ones with the reporters.

Business news was the final area where the report said improvements were needed, citing that serious business viewers would not be watching News 24, based upon the current service. Of course they wouldn't. They'd be watching a specialist business news channel such as CNBC or Bloomberg.

To even expect BBC News 24 to provide a business news service to compete with the likes of CNBC and Bloomberg is quite simply ludicrous. But there are things that BBC News 24 could do to improve its business news service.

Formalise the extended bulletin at lunchtime into a programme of its own, maybe with a longer bulletin around the time the London stock market closes. At weekends, review the week's major business developments, and add a panel discussion of some of those stories. The ideas are all there - all that has to be done is develop a few of them.

Overall, News 24 is a good channel, but it can be made better. What's needed is the vision to make News 24 as good as it can be. Is it there in the channel presently? We will find out, and, I dare say, quite soon.

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Article ©2003 Ian Beaumont

Compilation ©2003 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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