Last 55 Years of ITN’s News at Ten analysed under the microscope
‘It gets to heart of stories and tells them in an eyewitness way, taking viewers to the centre of the action but also giving human accounts of the experiences.’
Some 55 years ago a national institution was born.
At 10pm on July 3 1967 the bongs of Big Ben heralded a new format in the delivery of news for the UK and ITN’s News at Ten made its debut.
Steve Cain takes a nostalgic look back at Britain’s favourite news programme.
The sight of the Elizabeth Tower clock-face, followed by the sound of Big Ben’s bongs and the rousing, dramatic theme The Awakening has been inextricably associated with News at Ten for generations.
ITV’s flagship nightly news programme has a reputation for an award-winning combination of in-depth, analytical news coverage and populist stories, and it is a staple of the television schedules.
However, when it began, its future was far from assured.
The bosses at ITV disagreed with Geoffrey Cox (ITN’s editor) that the channel should be broadcasting a thirty-minute nightly news bulletin, but the Independent Television Authority overruled them.
Reluctantly, News at Ten was given a 13-week Monday-to-Friday trial run.
The first programme was broadcast on what had been a hot July day and the rooftop studio, which didn’t have any air-conditioning, was filled with electric fans and ice trays in an attempt to keep newscasters Alastair Burnet and Andrew Gardner cool.
It was a slow news week and the programme had little to cover in its first few editions. At the end of the first week, there were those among the moguls at ITV who wanted to pull the programme off the air by the following Monday.
Steadily, though, audiences grew to seven million every night and, after only ten weeks, they were at ten million. ITV conceded to make News at Ten a permanent feature.
By the summer of 1969, all five editions of the programme were rating in the top ten most watched programmes of the week, with twelve million viewers regularly tuning in.
“The ratings were very high in those early days,” said former reporter and newscaster Sandy Gall.
“Apparently, people were prepared to take any amount of blood and thunder and gloom and doom because it was what was happening and they wanted to know.”
The programme went from strength to strength, consolidating its reputation with distinctive features which proved popular with viewers.
These included “the reporter package” (a journalist and his camera providing a personalised report from the field), the use of Big Ben’s chimes to separate the news headlines in the opening sequence and, of course, the “... and finally” quirky end story to finish on a lighter note after 30 minutes of serious news.
In addition to Alastair Burnet and Andrew Gardner, the original team of newscasters included Reginald Bosanquet, Leonard Parkin and Gordon Honeycombe.
“The great distinction about ITN in those days was the newscasters,” said Trevor McDonald, who anchored News at Ten for over thirty years. “They were not stage faces or actors or people who had been trained to deliver the news. They were journalists who graduated to the business of reading the news.”
Having led the way in news delivery for almost a decade, News at Ten was caught on the back foot when the BBC employed Angela Rippon as a newscaster on their flagship Nine O’Clock News.
In response, in 1978, ITN employed Anna Ford to be the first female newscaster to present News at Ten.
“It was the news that put the world to bed at night,” said Anna Ford.
“A lot of people watched News at Ten and then that was it – the Queen hadn’t died; the world hadn’t stopped.”
Ford’s appointment attracted intense media and public interest; the age of the “celebrity newsreader” had dawned.
Away from the studio news-desk and out in the field, News at Ten reporters continued to provide award-winning extensive coverage of major international news stories, including the Falklands War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Gulf War.
In 1992, News at Ten was given its first major re-launch and dropped the dual-presentation format in favour of a sole anchor.
“I think the idea behind the change to one single anchor was quite clear,” said Trevor McDonald, who’d been chosen to present the programme.
“It was about branding and about trying to get a close identification between the programme and the person who was doing it.”
More changes followed in 1998 when ITV announced that News at Ten was to lose its fixed time-slot. The move was unpopular with both the media and the public and led to a 13.9 per cent decline in overall viewing figures for ITV News.
The haphazard scheduling of the programme (sometimes being broadcast at 10.30pm and at other times 11.00pm) confused viewers and led to critics within the tabloid press dubbing it News at When.
In 2007, ITV finally bowed to criticism and admitted that the removal of News at Ten from its fixed time slot was “a mistake that damaged ITV more than anything else.”
The programme, and its fixed time-slot, was reinstated into the ITV schedules in January 2008. Trevor McDonald, who had actually retired in 2005, made a temporary return to re-launch the new-look News at Ten.
In 2015, the programme underwent another revamp. Tom Bradby took the role as lead anchor, with Julie Etchingham as his deputy. Bradby admitted: “I do have a very strong idea of the kind of programme I want to present.”
His vision was to make News at Ten “distinctive, more human – and funnier than the BBC.” However, this irreverent approach has attracted criticism from some of his predecessors.
“I’m glad what I did was fairly straight,” said Trevor McDonald. “I’m not sure how capable or comfortable I’d be about expressing too much of my own view. I always felt that the news was the most important thing.”
Julie Etchingham’s viewpoint seems to bridge the contrasting views of Bradby and McDonald.
“News at Ten is a strong and enduring brand because of the way it tells its stories,” she said.
“It gets to the heart of stories and tells them in an eyewitness way, taking viewers to the centre of the action but also giving human accounts of the experiences within those issues and stories.”
Whichever approach prefered, News at Ten has been the nation’s favourite nightly news programme for the past five-and-a-half decades and looks set to remain so.