When a massive news story breaks at the weekend it can prove a challenge for the main TV bulletins.
Even in an age of 24-hour news, the importance to many people of the main BBC One and ITV 1 bulletins must not be forgotten.
Saturday’s mutiny by the Russian mercenary force Wagner was exactly that scenario.
The reports from Russia were confused. For a period, it looked like there was a real threat of a nuclear power descending into chaos or even civil war.
In an age of 24-hour news, staffing these stories is not an issue. Many correspondents are, essentially, required to be available when required.
The BBC News Channel and Sky News offered special programming and rolling coverage but what of the two main general channels?
ITV 1 bulletins were business as usual – visually and duration-wise.
But over at W1A, the public service broadcaster’s flagship channel has different responsibilities and dilemmas. Covering a major story at a time of week when the focus is on relaxation and entertainment.
BBC One definitely benefits from the fact that Breakfast is now established as part of the weekend schedule. Of the other three bulletins on Saturday, two were extended slightly.
My own view is that BBC One should have been prepared to allow more significant extensions to the durations.
Unfolding events in Russia were covered as comprehensively as they would have been during the week – especially on the late bulletin which was, by fortunate coincidence of timing, able to adopt the persona of the BBC News at Ten complete with Huw Edwards.
Huw came in specially to present and the programme was presented from its normal set – not the newsroom studio normally still used on Saturdays.
But the duration was insufficient to allow any other stories to be covered and there was no Saturday sports round-up.
This was a lost opportunity. When a major story happens, it’s important not to lose sight of other things even if stories are bound to be squeezed out.
There’s a lesson here for those in charge of BBC One – remember that the news is one of the channel’s biggest assets. I’m sure BBC News would have no trouble making the necessary representations.
The fact weekday branding was adopted and that Huw came in to present reminded me of a very different time.
In the mid-1980s the weekend news service seemed to suffer from a degree of benign neglect.
The weekday programmes had, by then, started to gain their own visual identities, computer graphics and presenters who were respected journalists.
The weekend bulletins were short, used the remnants of the 1981 generic identity and were denied computer graphics. They were normally presented by Jan Leeming who was hugely popular with the public but who was not a journalist – she was a newsreader in the old BBC sense.
In October 1986, President Reagan met President Gorbachev for a weekend summit on Iceland.
John Humphrys was brought in to present the weekend bulletins and slight modifications were made to the normal weekend presentation.
A few months later, came the tragedy of the Zeebrugge ferry disaster.
A special edition of Breakfast Time – by then a news-based programme – replaced some of Saturday Superstore.
At lunchtime, a full edition of the One O’Clock News – presented by Martyn Lewis and with its normal weekday branding – was shown during Grandstand.
The evening bulletins were an unusual hybrid.
They still used the normal weekend sets and titles. But Martyn stayed on to present and the One’s graphics package was used – together with the astons normally used by the daytime summaries.
A year later, the weekend inconsistency was addressed when the Nine o’Clock News was relaunched. The weekend bulletins used the Nine’s graphics and the main bulletins were always presented by one of the Nine’s presenters.
This helped to ensure that when big news broke at the weekend, the effort was on making sure the newsgathering operstion was up to speed – nobody needed to worry about whether the underlying standard or authority of weekend presentation was adequate.
So are there lessons from yesterday?
I’m increasingly sure there is a case for fixing the time of the main Saturday bulletin at 10pm – a solution can be found just as one was found for Sundays in 2000.
The bulletin could still be moved on exceptional occasions including the Eurovision Song Contest, the Last Night of the Proms and the Strictly final.
The programme should move “downstairs” to the main weekday set for the sake of visual consistency.
And I would be happy to see a more consistent presentation team at the weekends.
But Saturday’s work from Russia, Ukraine and London was excellent.
CORRECTION: the original version of this article suggested the early evening BBC One news programme on Saturday ran to its planned duration. Although it remained within its billed slot, it had in fact been extended by 4 minutes – a change that was made possible by the removal of planned trails in the surrounding junctions.
PICTURED: Huw Edwards presenting a special BBC News at Ten on Saturday. COPYRIGHT: BBC.