Window on the World

In this, part two of a series examining the state of news and current affairs programming, RealScreen investigates the status of world issues in broadcaster's schedules. What follows is a look at the U.K. - watch this space next month to find out how things are shaping up in the U.S.
February 1, 2001

On September 13, 2000, CNN foreign correspondent Christian Amanpour gave a speech at the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation convention that criticized news broadcasters for forsaking important stories in pursuit of ratings and profits. ‘I am no longer sure when I go out there and do my job it’ll even see the light of air, if the experience of my network colleagues is anything to go by,’ said Amanpour. ‘They would go through hell to do their pieces, only to find them killed back in New York, because of some fascinating new twist on ‘killer Twinkies’ or Fergie getting fatter. ‘I am not alone in feeling depressed about the state of news today.’

Amanpour’s remarks were directed at U.S. broadcasters, but similar criticisms have been leveled against their U.K. counterparts. When BBC1 moved its main current affairs strand ‘Panorama’, out of primetime and into a Sunday 10:15p.m. time slot, the production community took it as a sign of the times. ‘What has increasingly happened is [current affairs programs] have started to drift to the edge of the schedules, and there is a lot less of it,’ says Leslie Woodhead, director of Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave, a 1999 doc that traces the story of the July 1995 massacre in Bosnia. ‘There are still some outposts where good things are done, but there’s no question that there’s an increasing pursuit of audience maximizing.’

Woodhead’s argument refers to the approach he believes the BBC has embraced, that in order to maximize audience share, broadcasters must air less demanding programming. ‘This is the weird and wonderful way the BBC has responded to the taxation on all viewers,’ he explains. ‘Once the audience share for all their outlets falls below 40%, it gets harder and harder to justify the license fee.’

Adrian van Klaveren, head of news gathering at the Beeb says that despite changes to the schedule, the pubcaster spent approximately £900,000 more on current affairs programs in 2000 than the previous year. The money, explains Klaveren, was used to increase the turnaround time and resources available to individual editions and not to increase the number of editions. This, in turn, allowed stories to be better told, as more time was spent producing them. ‘The audiences for these programs, looking at the figures, depends on what story you tell and how well you tell it,’ says Klaveren. ‘People watch TV with a remote control in their hand. They have made no investment in a program, they have not bought a ticket for it, it’s just there. It’s very easy to move on. People have that choice and you have to convince them that this is the choice they want to make. You can’t just say ‘here’s our schedule and it has all these good things for you and therefore you must stick with it.”

Klaveren sees international current affairs programs eroding mainly within Britain’s commercial broadcast sector. ‘I think if you look at the main commercial channel in the U.K., ITV, you see a rather different story. Current affairs has been forced out of primetime. Programs like World in Action have disappeared. There used to be some real current affairs building blocks on their peak-time schedule. What they have now is one 10:00p.m. current affairs magazine program and that is it.’

‘In terms of devoting time to Third World subjects, it’s always going to be a risk for a big commercial channel like ITV,’ replies Steven Andersen, ITV’s controller of news. ‘When we do, it often doesn’t pay off in commercial terms. We cleared an hour and a half of peak time TV earlier this year for a special on Iraq – Paying the Price: Killing the Children of Iraq (John Pilger & Adam Lowery) – and that program is helping to change governments’ opinions around the world. It certainly made a big impact on the British government and its stance on sanctions against Iraq. Yet commercially, it wasn’t a success.’

Andersen admits that a few years ago, ITV’s current affairs programming went through a ‘bad phase’. He explains that being a commercial entity, the channel’s raison d’etre is mass audiences, but its current affairs programming had ossified and was stuck in a time warp. ‘Three years ago we got rid of our biggest, most famous brand, World in Action, and we replaced it with a one-hour, 60 Minutes-style news magazine called Tonight with Trevor McDonald, which our peer group didn’t like at all,’ he recalls. ‘They thought it was sacrilege to get rid of such a trusted brand as World in Action and replace it with a program that has a much more modern agenda. The fact is, two years in, Tonight with Trevor McDonald gets a 30% share of the audience.’

Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of ITN (a U.K. indie that provides news programs for broadcasters including ITV and Channel 4) and vice chairman of the International Press Institute, believes current affairs programming in Britain is in trouble. But, he thinks programs such as Tonight are rejuvenating the genre. ‘I think news magazines show the world the way for how you can combine news resources with current affairs skills to make really great, compelling television,’ he explains. ‘[Tonight] will do a report from Kosovo, it will do the British floods, it does investigative pieces and it does spots on sports heroes. They’ve got a mix that you would recognize as a North American mix and it has been very successful. It brought a whole new audience back to current affairs, so I don’t think we should be too depressed. I think [the genre] had to reinvent itself and I think there’s a lot of intelligent people doing that.’

That said, magazine programs demand several shorter stories be packaged together within a given time – usually 60 minutes. The format prevents subjects from being analyzed to the same extent Woodhead was granted for A Cry from the Grave, which was 100-minutes long and aired on BBC2′s ‘Storyville’ strand. Broadcasters and advertisers may smile upon the evolution of current affairs to shorter, faster-paced formats, but at what cost?

In a speech given at the News World 2000 conference held in Barcelona last November, Tait hit upon a possible answer to that question. He asked broadcasters to ensure that international news stories such as those pursued by reporters in the world’s conflict zones, continue to be commissioned on news channels as well as terrestrial bulletins around the world. He asked editors to resist attempts by ‘politicians, regulators and would-be censors’ to sanitize what broadcasters are entitled to reveal. And, he asked commissioning editors to recognize the rights of the victims: ‘The victims of these conflicts have rights too, the right for the world to know what happened. And the reporters, producers and crews on the front line have rights as well as responsibilities. They are entitled to expect us to have the will to show as full a version as possible of what they have witnessed.’

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