25 years on: remembering the move of News at Ten and the launch of the ITV Evening and Nightly News

Out with the old, in with the new. That’s what we faced 25 years ago, in 1999.

On Friday 5th March of that year, we transmitted what we thought was going to be the last ever News at Ten. Three days later, we put out the first of the new ITV news programmes – including the flagship ITV Evening News at 6.30pm, and the ITV Nightly News at 11pm.

I was editor of ITN News on ITV during this roller-coaster period, in charge both of the last phase of the old News at Ten, and then the launch of the new programmes.

ITN had already lived through an unsuccessful attempt to move News at Ten earlier in the 1990s. But this time ITV laid the ground carefully, and managed to persuade the regulator, the ITC, to allow the schedule changes to go ahead.

For everyone working at ITN in that year, it was a difficult period, with mixed feelings running at all levels of the organisation and in all departments.

There was on the one hand enormous affection and regard for News at Ten, and for all that it had achieved in its 32-year history, and then on the other hand, there was a general acceptance that we had to move on and make the best of the new schedule.

The Future

In 1999, I wrote the last chapter for the ITN book on the history of News at Ten. The chapter was called simply, ‘The Future’. In it, I praised News at Ten, and the way it had “radically changed the way in which television news operated”. But I said this was not an ‘And Finally’ story.

I wrote: “News at Ten will come off air on a Friday evening and then, the following Monday at 6.30pm the same team will produce the first edition of ITN’s new flagship programme, The Evening News”.

I explained how many of the News at Ten’s recognisable features would transfer to the new flagship – the presenter, the bongs, the title music, the reporting team.

The new programme would also follow the News at Ten ‘broad-based’ editorial agenda, giving high priority to important political and international events, but, at the same time, making room for human interest, consumer, medical, and media stories.

But I went on to say that the new programmes on ITV would also have new elements – a new high-tech set, bright new graphics, more live reports, and the use of digital technology.

I found it interesting to re-read what I’d written in 1999. And here I am writing about the programme again, 25 years later!

To research this article, I contacted some of those who helped launch the new Evening News in 1999 – Trevor McDonald, of course, the programme editor Robin Elias, the studio director Munro Forbes, the designer Glenn Marshall, and the then deputy editor of ITN News on ITV Michael Jermey, who is now ITV’s Director of News.

Terrified

I rang Trevor, and managed to catch him just before he was leaving to give a speech in Yorkshire. He’s clearly still keeping busy. He told me that his main memory was that he was “terrified and nervous” in the run-up to the new programme.

He said: “The launch of the Evening News was a big moment for ITN. There were always people who wanted to snipe at us. We needed to pull it off and make the new format meet the ITN mark of professionalism. That was not an easy thing to achieve. But we did it.”

I put it to him that he was very much the face of the changing schedule in that year, 25 years ago.

He laughed, and agreed: “I felt that all the time! I just thought, every minute, that we had to make sure that the new programme lived up to all the hype.”

As for the schedule change, Trevor was unequivocal. “The decision to move News at Ten was so stupid, just one of those dreadful missteps that companies make every so often. The programme had been a great success in every way.”

The Newsroom

Off-screen, one of the key figures in the launch was the programme editor, Robin Elias. He programme edited both the last News at Ten programme on the Friday, and the new Evening News the following week. Quite a double act!

He too remembers that nerves were fraught in the newsroom during the preparation for both programmes.

But he revealed that his main concern at the time was whether the newsroom would be able to pull together a polished, half-hour programme by 6.30pm – three and a half hours earlier than it was used to doing. He described this as, “a hell of a systemic shift, and a massive change”.

In the end, he thought the newsroom did move up a gear, and achieve this. He also pointed out that the ITV Evening News is now an hour long, and regularly produces in-depth reports. His concerns we wouldn’t be able to adapt to an earlier time turned out to be misplaced.

Exclusive

Back in 1999, in the newsroom itself, there was also pressure to come up with something special for the launch. In the end, the newsdesk pulled off quite a coup with an exclusive interview by Mike Brunson with the Chancellor, on the day before the budget.

Robin and I made the decision to make it the lead story on the first Evening News. The choice sparked a certain amount of debate, but I thought (and still think) that we were right to go for something different and distinctive.

Munro Forbes, one of ITN’s most experienced studio directors, also worked on the Friday News at Ten and the Monday Evening News. He had been part of the team that had designed and built the new set.

He now lives and works in Nicosia, but looks back at the launch of the Evening News as one of the highlights of his career.

When I tracked him down via LinkedIn, he replied, “Can it really be a quarter of a century since we launched the Evening News! It seems like yesterday, although I must say that I break out in a cold sweat when I remember that launch!”

Munro recalls how innovative the new programme was, using VR for reporter explainer sequences in its daily output:

“We had decided that the Evening News would be the first in the UK to feature regular virtual reality graphics, with a technique of walking from the real set into VR – which required a new studio, new equipment, and a very careful technical line-up.

“In the event, the new control system this required was a massive headache, and many engineering and production hours were spent on it. Right up to the last minute, we knew that this could scupper our launch. Much to our relief, the Evening News, with our ground-breaking virtual reality, went on air without a hitch.”

New Design

The next on my list to contact was the graphics designer, Glenn Marshall.

Glenn and I worked closely together on the new design. He said: “One great thing on projects like this at ITN was the teams were small and decision-making very quick – not designed by committee.

“We recognised how important the Big Ben clock face was to the ITV news heritage, but tried to make it look more modern. And we added a globe with latitude and longitude lines to make the news seem more international.”

“One thing to note is at that time UK news broadcasters had monotone and blue sets.  So, we decided to go for a vibrant colour palette – and that was quite a departure.”

And certainly, the brighter colours were noticed. I’ve kept cuttings from the launch period, and one of my favourites is the Daily Mirror’s page 3 headline on Tuesday March 2nd : “Early Evening Hues: Warm Tones Replace the Cool Blues at Ten”.

The article went on “Here is the news – and it’s looking brighter than ever. After News at Ten is axed Trevor McDonald’s new flagship bulletins will have a brand new colour scheme. Out goes the cold steel blue and grey set. In come shades of peach, spicy reds and electric blue for ITV’s new Evening News at 6.30pm.”

ITV’s View

So how do ITV now regard the Evening News?

I wrote to Michael Jermey, who was part of the original launch team when he was at ITN, and who now has overall control of the Evening News in his current role as ITV’s Director of News and Current Affairs.

Michael replied saying that the ITV Evening News is now “well established as Britain’s most watched commercial national news programme”, and reaches well over 30 million viewers across a year. And looking to the future, he was positive. He told me: “We expect scheduled news programmes like the ITV Evening News to continue to play a key role in the schedule for many years to come.”

An upbeat view, then, of the programme that launched amidst so much controversy 25 years ago.

Looking back on that period, there is still the question of whether ITN could or should have done more to prevent the move of News at Ten. It’s a complicated issue, and one for another article.

But there was at least a silver lining in that cloud that hovered over ITN in March 1999 – the fact that we picked ourselves up after the loss of the old News at Ten, and then created a new flagship programme that, like its predecessor, has carved out a distinctive identity, and has survived over the years.

It was born in difficult circumstances, but the 6.30pm ITV Evening News is still here, 25 years later.


Background Information: The Story of News at Ten

The last edition of the old News at Ten was on Friday 5th March 1999, and the launch of the new Evening News on Monday 8th.

Of course, what we didn’t know then, was that News at Ten was to make a partial comeback in 2001 (three days a week, soon to be called ‘News at When’), and then, after another gap during the News at 10.30 years, returned as a ‘proper’ News at Ten in 2008 – now presented by Tom Bradby. The ITV Nightly News ended in 2001 with the return of News at Ten.

The schedule changes in 1999 allowed the BBC to move its main news bulletin to 10pm in October 2000. ITV’s executive chairman, Michael Grade, said in March 2007 that moving ITV’s News at Ten in 1999 had been “a shocking mistake … it damaged ITV more than anything”.

The ITV Evening News at 6.30pm, meanwhile, continued, and is now Britain’s most watched commercial national news programme.