British cycling, hospitals and Brexit may all have made headlines this week, but in the flagship news slot for Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster, viewers have instead been shown a boxer talking about his ejaculation habits and a urinating camel.
Keen to provide a popular live entertainment alternative to the BBC news, ITV has moved its flagship News at Ten bulletin back by 30 minutes for the next eight weeks to make way for a topical, part-sketch part-chat show with a different host each week.
But The Nightly Show has not yet proved popular with critics or viewers. The TV critic Kevin O’Sullivan called it “dreadful from start to finish”, and even one ITV executive described it in a Facebook post as “very thin”.
From a high of 2.9 million on Monday night, the audience slipped to 1.3 million on Tuesday and average 1.4 million on Thursday, both lower than the 1.8 million average for the News at 10 it replaced. Even worse on Thursday was the fact that while 1.7 million of the 5.3 million viewers of the programme on before it – a new Prime Suspect prequel – stayed to watch the start of the show, by 10.30pm 700,000 had switched over or off.
At one point during Thursday’s episode, which featured an excruciating interview with the boxer David Haye, the presenter David Walliams turned to the camera and said archly: “And they moved the news for this?”
The 10pm slot has become an important commercial and political battleground in an ever more competitive marketplace.
Greg Dyke, who as BBC director general moved BBC One’s evening news to 10pm, said: “I don’t think you’ll ever see ITV news back at 10. They will actively get a news and entertainment show that works.”
The TV presenter Richard Osman said the show was “a Trojan horse to move the news” and predicted the return of regular 90-minute dramas on ITV.
For evidence of how controversial that decision would be, one needs look no further than the Daily Mail’s reaction to the new show. After just two nights the newspaper berated ITV for its “lame surrender”. “This is bad for journalism, bad for media plurality – and ultimately bad for democracy. ITV should be ashamed,” it howled.
On Wednesday night, when the News at Ten anchor Tom Bradby picked up an award for presenter of the year at the Royal Television Awards, industry figures could talk of little else but The Nightly Show. ITV’s failure to attract stars bigger than those who appear in its other programmes, from Martin Clunes to the cast of the Voice, led to jibes about “the Shitely No”.
Yet although the decision to move the flagship news was hugely unpopular within the news department, Bradby said there was commercial logic to the decision.
Speaking before The Nightly Show launched, Bradby told the Royal Television Society: “If you take as a start point that ITV news is a fantastic thing, which I do, and a really important thing for British public life, then of course the commercial health of the channel behind it is critical. In this day and age, the exact time of a bulletin is less important than what kind of audience it gets.”
In an interview with the Guardian before the launch, ITV’s director of television, Kevin Lygo, said he had taken the decision to try something new because the channel could never win in a direct head to head with the BBC, even with an award-winning News at Ten relaunched to much fanfare just over a year ago. “The truth is that when you’re up against the 50-times resourced juggernaut of BBC1 news, you won’t get more viewers.”
The rationale is clear: not only were almost four times as many people tuning in to the BBC at the top of the hour but fewer than a million were watching ITV at 10.30pm, and, as Lygo said, those viewers were “not young”.
ITV first axed News at Ten in 1999 to clear the primetime schedules for blockbuster movies, drama and big football matches. After its struggled to stick with one time for the news, the industry’s then regulator insisted the “News at When” farce should end.
Dyke said ITV’s current problems dated back to that decision. “ITV should never have given up the slot in the first place. That was a commercial mistake.”
But he said given the BBC was now dominant – this week the news fronted by Huw Edwards did not fall below 4.1 million viewers – ITV had to try new things.
“It is quite an interesting idea and those shows need time to settle in,” Dyke said. “They are trying to build a younger audience at 10. In a world where competition gets greater and greater, you can hardly blame them for trying.”
Such competition, with viewers moving online, means ITV cannot help but explore alternatives. Dyke is among several analysts who do not see media regulators playing a role in the current News at When saga.
The TV critic Boyd Hilton said he “admired the bravery” of the new programme and described a nightly live entertainment show as “one of the hardest things to do on British TV”, given its relatively limited budgets compared with the US version.
Having spent time with the team behind the Late Late Show with James Corden, he said: “In America there are hundreds of people working on this. There were 10 people working on one monologue in Cordon’s show … It’s such a difficult thing to do live or as live every day, especially with social media where everyone is wanting it to fail.”
Hilton had little sympathy with the idea of a News at 10 shibboleth: “It is not a holy thing to have the news at 10.”
ITV has refused to comment in the show’s first week, and Lygo has previously said he will make no decision on the show’s future until the end of the eight-week run. Insiders suggest estimates of a £10m budget for the series are inaccurate, although at roughly £250,000 per half-hour episode this would make it almost three times cheaper than dramas such as Vera.
Perhaps the key issue was summed up by Clunes, a guest on the show’s first night, talking about the future of his ITV drama Doc Martin: “If people watch it, it goes again: if they don’t, it doesn’t.”