Life beyond News at Ten: ITN seeks deals with Netflix and Amazon

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Don’t tell ITN boss John Hardie he’s running a legacy media company. He is planning to make big factual shows for Netflix and Amazon and claims that his Channel 4 News team is so smart on social media that Vice News UK – and even the BBC – can’t keep up.

So put aside the notion that ITN is all about the News at Ten, no matter how loud the hoo-ha last year over anchor Tom Bradby leading an ITV News head-to-head challenge to Huw Edwards’ late evening BBC bulletin. Think instead of a company that also produces news-style Facebook videos for Club 18-30 featuring poolside reporters, and TV adverts for Suzuki.

Know also that ITN has just been commissioned by CBS, America’s biggest network, to make The Triumph Games, a show which Hardie describes as “The Hunger Games meets The Krypton Factor”, in which American military veterans undertake a variety of sporting challenges.

Having joined the company in 2009, when its future was threatened, Hardie has challenged it to make £90m-a-year by the end of 2020 from such activities as making TV shows, adverts, branded content, news video for industry associations and filming every game from the Football League. He wants similar revenues from a broadcast news portfolio that includes ITV News, Channel 4 News, and 5 News (the contract for which it retained this month).

Channel 4 News' viral formula

It is the Channel 4 News operation he most obviously wants to talk about at the start of a long interview in his first-floor office at Gray’s Inn Road in London. The Jon Snow-hosted bulletin has discovered a “secret sauce”, Hardie claims, and is “blowing the doors off” in promoting itself on social media.

“In the last couple of years Channel 4 News has not only grown on television, with audiences up 4 per cent and share up 6 per cent, but we've had a dramatic increase in views of our material online, particularly on YouTube and even more so on Facebook,” he says.

“In the last 90 days it has had 275m views on Facebook, that’s a 10 to 1 ratio versus Vice News UK and is also slightly more than the BBC gets. Maybe we try harder on Facebook or maybe our people are a little bit cleverer on Facebook?”

He praises the new young C4 News digital chief Jon Laurence for fresh techniques introduced in making video more shareable. “Hopefully I'm not giving away the recipe for the secret sauce but they say… establishing shots of buildings or a helicopter sweeping down over the streets is fantastic for television but doesn't work for mobile – you get straight into where the human drama is and a big close up of the people that matter.” Such learning is informed by viewing data – “it’s not just by their instincts in journalism but by looking at the numbers”. The same approach identifies “the power of subtitling”, matching videos with snappy words for mobile users without headphones.

Hardie’s obvious pride suggests he is worried at the prospect of Channel 4 being part-privatised, given that Channel 4 News carries a paucity of advertising and might be vulnerable to new owners. The prospect evokes a passionate outburst. “Channel 4 News and current affairs is a treasure and fulfils a very important democratic function for pluralism… with a major focus on international news and news not covered elsewhere. I would advocate with my dying breath that, whatever models are being considered, it must not be lost.”

Social media trumps rolling news

The multi-platform nature of broadcast news has been a happy development for a company that failed and failed again (as ITN, then through ITV) to establish a rolling news TV channel. As social media platforms grow in importance, even the BBC has been considering taking its BBC News Channel online-only. Changing technology has played into Hardie’s hands. “We no longer miss not having 24-7 news (on TV). Seven years ago we probably did, but we don’t any longer,” he says.

Not only does ITV News not covet a rolling channel, it’s moving away from the idea of a “somewhat static destination website” in favour of “breaking news though the course of the day” on multiple online platforms. Correspondents such as political editor Robert Peston might “just go on Facebook Live” to update a story.

One area where Hardie should find it harder to be bullish is on the traditional ratings war with the BBC, where ITV comes a distant second (sometimes beaten four to one at 10pm). The Bradby-led mission, he protests, was more nuanced than taking on the BBC. It was to create “a very modern programme which puts journalism and analysis first” and to change the audience profile, making it “a bit more ABC1”. His client, ITV, is happy with progress thus far, he claims.

Tom Bradby fronting ITN's flagship News at Ten on ITV

ITN’s place at the heart of the UK news ecology should not be underestimated. As well as making the news for all the commercial public service broadcasters, it also provides video for the websites of almost every national newspaper, from the Daily Star to the Daily Telegraph. Some take a simple news feed, others pay for a bespoke service of video “editorialised to their tone of voice and story selection”, to use the phrase of Mark Browning, managing director of ITN Productions, which is based on the ground floor and has seen its staff headcount rise 38 per cent to 120 in the past year.

Browning says that while one ITN team might be working on an investigation for Dispatches, another will be producing branded content for a commercial client (such as the William Hill campaign, featuring Robbie Savage, currently running for Euro 2016). But he insists Chinese walls protect client confidentiality.

The rise of branded content

ITN is not a broadcaster, Hardie states, but “a client-facing service company”.

Its broadcast news clients each have a unique identity. This is reflected in the fact that the ITV News crowd use the stylish Blue Lion gastro-pub across the street, whereas the Channel 4 team prefers the no-frills appeal of the Calthorpe Arms further up the road. When 5 News decamps back to Bloomsbury from Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell building, where ITN has been producing its output, it must find its own watering hole.

The commercial clients are even more diverse. There can’t be many ITN correspondents who work in a bikini from a holiday resort but that’s the lot of ITN Productions entertainment reporter Andrea Lilly, who has been hosting much of the Club 18-30 content. It’s this branded material which Hardie thinks has the greatest potential for generating revenue beyond broadcast news. ITN Productions’ opportunity, he says, is in engaging younger audiences by bringing the immediacy of a news approach to branded social media content. “The competitive advantage for us is with the millennial age, and this idea of real time currency, a daily dialogue between a brand and a consumer”.

So Club 18-30 stories run three times a week, building a sense that the fun is happening right here, right now. According to Browning, the brief from the client was to extend the 18-30 experience “beyond the holiday” by stoking anticipation. The old media alternative for the holiday brand would have been “glossy photos and staged events”, he says. “Gen Y have sussed all that stuff out. They want to be able to share experiences, they have this FOMO (fear of missing out).”

Club 18-30 TV in full swing

ITN Productions has the experienced news executive Chris Shaw as its editorial director. Hardie talks of the word “authentic” being its ethos and says its staff, often recruited from other parts of ITN, have “the blood of journalism in their veins”. But Browning, though he talks of the company’s desire to find ways to make journalism pay, is also single-minded in recognising the need for ITN and its news clients to chase the people with the “money pots”, namely “the brands, the sponsors, the broadcasters”.

ITN’s involvement in sports media is not widely known but it films every Football League game, supplying footage to Sky, and edits Sky’s Premier League coverage into highlights for the Times and the Sun. This month it recruited Alastair Waddington, a former COO of sports media giant IMG, as director of sport. Waddington, who refers to ITN as “a hungry and ambitious brand with integrity and legacy”, has already identified potential new opportunities. “You could make the argument that if you can do this for the Football League why couldn’t you do it for the umpteen other football leagues that there are all around the world,” he says.

Hardie sees the other news organisations who are moving into selling branded content (such as the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph) not as rivals but as potential clients and partners because of ITN’s video expertise. Contrary to popular opinion, he sees the BBC in a similar light. ITN is currently making a new factual series for BBC One daytime, called ‘Going Back, Giving Back’ and focused on the growing trend of successful people wishing to return something to society.

“It’s our aspiration to make many more programmes for the BBC; they are a rival in journalism but not our enemy, they’re potentially a very large customer,” says Hardie, a Scot who previously worked for Disney and before that oversaw the sales of beauty products for marketing powerhouse Procter & Gamble. He is heartened by changes to BBC production quotas resulting from the recent white paper review and hopes it will lead to more opportunities for ITN. “I would love to do more documentaries, more factual programmes and more current affairs for the BBC.”

Netflix, Amazon and US expansion

But it is in America, where ITN is establishing a New York-base, that Hardie senses the greatest growth opportunities and he hopes to make £18m-a-year there by the end of 2020. “That’s a big old market out there,” he says. ITN has built a lucrative business in making content for industry associations – often hosted by Natasha Kaplinsky and linked to conferences. America has lots of associations. “They even have an association of associations – I’m not kidding,” says Hardie.

He is “looking forward to seeing” a new Vice News project with HBO, which he hopes might open the door of the US news and current affairs market for other providers.

But he is especially keen to pursue talks with the new big digital players in video content, namely Netflix and Amazon, which he says are looking beyond drama commissions. “We are in conversation with potential clients there,” he says.

“These new wave industries are seeing the potential in factual-based programming in addition to drama and comedy. We want to be the first among production companies jumping on that.”

The News Business column is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian Burrell on Twitter @iburrell

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