Select Committee on Communications Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180 - 200)


Mr Chris Shaw and Ms Sue Robertson

  Q180  Chairman: Having had your flagship on at 5.30, why are you, an hour and a half later, going to have another half-hour programme?

  Mr Shaw: I think that it will be a very different programme. We have been running that pattern for three years now and we are reasonably happy with it; but we are obliged to run 102 hours of news between 6.30 and ten, in peak, six days a week. There are not that many other places you would care to put it, though we have tried quite a few, including 8.30, 6 p.m. and, briefly, 7.30 p.m. It has performed at more or less the same levels over ten years, if you track the growth of the channel and the size of the audiences at those various points. It is a small channel, a small audience, but it is a loyal audience. To put it in context, our audience share at 5.30 p.m. is very similar to Channel 4's audience share, i.e. the percentage of people watching the news on that channel as a percentage of the total available audience.

  Q181  Bishop of Manchester: Would that pattern that you are describing over the ten years be roughly the pattern for the other genre in the channel, or is news falling behind?

  Mr Shaw: No. I have had this work done a couple of years ago, which showed that news audiences are rather less promiscuous than audiences to other types of programmes. One of the crucial factors is what is on against you. We do not tend to do that well when we are head-to-head with another news programme, which we have been at seven o'clock—because Channel 4 News has been at seven o'clock since it started. Nor do we do brilliantly well when we have a low inheritance. For example, when television movies did very well in the afternoon on Channel 5 for many years, we inherited audiences of around a million into our 5.30 news, and often used to get figures of 800 or 900,000. As television movies have lost their appeal and lost roughly half their audiences, our users have drifted down a bit at 5.30, but not to the same extent. So I would say that we do have a loyal core audience to five News who like us and we want to make them more and more loyal, because we recognise that audiences are fracturing to all kinds of media, and particularly to news.

  Q182  Bishop of Manchester: So the change of supplier has not altered significantly the number of viewers?

  Mr Shaw: I cannot say that it has, no.

  Q183  Bishop of Manchester: What about the age profiles? Do you know from any research what the most popular age groups are that watch five News?

  Mr Shaw: Yes. Over 55—for all news programmes actually, probably including Newsround, which is designed for children!

  Q184  Bishop of Manchester: You referred earlier, in response to Lady Eccles, to some of the audience research on news output. Have you done any research which would indicate that, over the next five years, and particularly as we move more into the digital era, there will be significant changes to the way in which you do the news at the moment?

  Mr Shaw: I think that there will be significant changes to the way we do news. We have to restore a much more radical point of difference with other news programming and with other news sources.

  Q185  Bishop of Manchester: Have you any idea how that might work out in terms of five News?

  Mr Shaw: Yes, some ideas. I referred earlier on to making those who were loyal to five News even more loyal. We believe the way to do this is through trying to interact more openly with our regular viewers and to encourage them, for example, to contribute ideas and even news items for five News. We have taken this initiative at the end of last year. We are very happy with the way it is going and intend to expand it as time goes on. It is called Your News. We have had over 1,000 submissions in the seven months that it has been up and running, and we have run news reports made by members of the public every night for the last seven months, as part of our main news output.

  Q186  Chairman: Do I get a slight impression that, left to your own devices, you would quite like to do less news in volume terms? I am not saying less in quality, but in volume terms. If it was your decision, you would not put on as much news, filling the spaces as you do at the moment?

  Mr Shaw: No, I do not think that is fair. I think the kind of news that I have in mind—and if I am going to make changes to the nature of our news again—it requires more time rather than less. Curiously, we have our little updates but, when it comes to programming, to allow news to be more discursive, to involve members of the public more readily, it requires a bit more time than we have at the moment. For example, our 5.30 programme, once you have taken out the time for the adverts and so on, is actually only about 23 minutes of editorial time. It is not a great deal to cover the events of the world, the nation and, sometimes, the local stuff too.

  Q187  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Mr Shaw, you have referred several times, implicitly or explicitly, to being quite a small player in the market. You have been quoted in the past as saying that when you are a small player in this market, in effect, you have to use what you have to get what you need. First of all, can you say whether you think that, as a small player, there is an adequate range of possible ways of providing news open to you? Following on from that, as to the news provider that you have now, you said in an earlier answer that you personally have no direct contact with BSkyB as the big organisation; that you deal with Sky News. However, you have also remarked on the fact that five News is BSkyB's terrestrial platform, as it were, for news in UK television.

  Mr Shaw: "Showcase."

  Q188  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: Yes, their showcase. Do you have any concerns or any observations to make about how that positions BSkyB, or how it could position them in the future, and indeed what they might think about how it positions them, in relation particularly to, say, the next time the ITV contract comes up?

  Mr Shaw: My personal view is that Sky will never win the ITV news contract while ITV is a 40% holder in ITN. I just do not get that. I also think that Sky News has been tasked with doing what Fox News has done for Mr Murdoch in the United States, which is to make him some money. This is my own opinion; you would obviously have to talk to Sky about it in detail. They understand that they have a very good brand and a very good reputation for news supply, and I think that they think the more places they can show their wares, the better. If you travel on One railways from Liverpool Street, you will see that the railway station has recently switched from BBC to Sky. That is a huge deal for them. They are spending huge amounts of money on online and on other platforms, if you like. We are still, by quite a long shot, their biggest client, but they have a clear intention to try and make a bit more money than they have done in the past.

  Q189  Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: You are focusing on the financial benefits that they are looking for, but can you give us a bit more of your perspective on what value five News specifically represents to them, not in terms of the money they are making but in terms of what leverage it gives them in the market in which they are trying to operate?

  Mr Shaw: If I understand you right, it shows that they can do news programmes as well as rolling news to any potential future client; but most broadcasters, including Channel 4 and ITV, knew that they had that power. Most of the people running Sky News cut their teeth at ITN or at BBC. 90% of the people who work on Sky News today probably learned their trade at BBC or ITN; so they are all part of the same basic gene pool of British news. five News has shown the rest of the broadcast environment that Sky can make a bespoke service without plastering their name all over it; can make a distinctive offering out of what they do as their core activity, which is rolling news. In that sense, yes, they have shown other potential customers that they can do bespoke as well as off-the-peg.

  Ms Robertson: It works well for us, because it means that if they do think this is a shop window, they are motivated to do it as well as possible. From our point of view they are trying hard.

  Q190  Baroness Thornton: Following on from that, can I raise the issue of public interest, around what BSkyB are doing at the moment in terms of their purchase of a stake in ITV, and what your view is on that? Ofcom have cited public interest grounds and OFT have cited anticompetitive grounds, but what is your view on what that means for this industry?

  Ms Robertson: As a channel, we do not really have any view one way or the other on it. In terms of our experience with Sky as a news provider, obviously they have been good experiences. We are not affected as a broadcaster one way or the other by a 17½% share that Sky has in ITV. It is not an issue that we have any very strong feelings on.

  Mr Shaw: Also, in truth they have much bigger fish to fry than the news contract for ITV.

  Q191  Lord Maxton: If Sky are allowed the 17.9% share in ITV, first of all they become a shareholder through ITV of ITN. They also, however, are in a position—presumably they will get a board member and have a shareholding, which will be a substantial percentage—to influence the future news on ITV. It may be that they might look to persuade ITV to ship the contract to them rather than keeping it with ITN.

  Ms Robertson: As I understand it—and I am not an apologist for Sky—this is not an area where we have any strong or any particular views, but I thought that ITV had just renewed their news contract with ITN for another five years till post-2012.

  Q192  Lord Maxton: Let me start with the first point I made. Sky will then become a shareholder in ITN and therefore a shareholder in your competitors. Might there not be a conflict of interest between what they provide to you and their interest in ITN?

  Mr Shaw: I just do not see it, I am sorry. It is 17.9% of 40% on a third-party contract which does not come up for renewal in five years' time. I find it quite hard to get too exercised about that.

  Q193  Chairman: We will have the benefit of BSkyB. I think that it is a bit unfair to ask you to speak for them at this stage. I have two last questions. Channel 4 made quite a lot about its investment in investigative journalism. Do you go down that path?

  Mr Shaw: No, we are not constituted to do long-form investigative reports. It is not to say that we do not have an enquiring mind or a curious mindset or lots of fizz and energy, and that we do not contribute to the protection of democracy, et cetera; but we are not an investigative service in the same way that Newsnight or Channel 4 are. However, we have done investigations.

  Q194  Chairman: You have done investigations?

  Mr Shaw: Yes.

  Q195  Chairman: Many?

  Mr Shaw: We do not just spit out the news as the received wisdom. All stories are examined, interrogated; sometimes we actually go out. We have just won an award for an exposé of the use of under-age children on ship-breaking yards in Bangladesh. We won quite a prestigious award from the Monte Carlo Television Festival. So we do do investigation, but it is not our hallmark. As I say, our hallmarks are clarity, straightforwardness. It is news that does not make you feel stupid.

  Q196  Chairman: That is very clear. You will have heard, because you were here, Channel 4 at the end, and indeed at the beginning, basically saying—and I do not want to put words into their mouth—that they had this £10 million deficit and it was possible that public support would be required for that. In other words, that £10 million would have to come from the taxpayer. What would be your view on that?

  Mr Shaw: On Channel 4 getting money from the taxpayer? I think that Channel 4 News is wonderful. I spent four very happy years of my own career there. Whether it is something that should be subsidised by the British taxpayer, like the Tower of London, I feel less comfortable with.

  Q197  Chairman: Is that a "No"?

  Mr Shaw: That is a personal opinion. You will have to ask Sue what the company position is.

  Q198  Chairman: She does not look any more comfortable than you do!

  Mr Shaw: I am very happy that the BBC is supported by the licence payer. I am less comfortable with other news services also doing that.

  Ms Robertson: As we were talking about it earlier, you have to look at the cost of news within the totality of the cost of all your programming. From where we sit, Channel 4 is in a very healthy financial position, and we would be very happy to have some of their problems—thank you very much! They have one of the most attractive demographics of all of broadcasters in what they can sell commercially. They have over 25% share of advertising revenue. We have some scepticism about the degree of financial crisis that Channel 4 seems to feel is imminent. However, Channel 4 News is a really important part of the DNA of Channel 4. As Dorothy was saying, it really is the most obvious part of their PSB contribution, and it would be a tragedy if it were no longer to be there. Whether they need some form of public intervention to ensure that is the case, I am not absolutely sure; but we are having that debate over the next year, as part of the Ofcom PSB review.

  Q199  Chairman: You are not putting in for public support yourself?

  Ms Robertson: We are not, no.

  Q200  Chairman: And that is a decided policy?

  Ms Robertson: Yes. We have consistently said that we do not believe that top-slicing the licence fee is the best way of ensuring that there will be more public service broadcasting available as a whole within the broadcasting ecology, and that different forms of funding is a better way of funding broadcasting in the broadcasting ecology. We do not see that setting up some new quango—to distribute, like Lady Bountiful, a bit of the BBC licence fee for other broadcasters to be doing some form of public service broadcasting—will add much benefit to anyone.

  Chairman: That is very clear. Thank you both very much for your evidence. Perhaps if there are other issues we may come back to you on them, but we will put those in writing.

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