ITV News Head Talks Royal Baby, Tapping Into the National Conversation

2:40 PM PST 07/29/2013 by Georg Szalai
ITV News

Acting editor Jonathan Munro also discusses beating the BBC in the ratings and what role foreign news networks play in the U.K.

LONDON – Britain's ITV News had a strong showing with its royal baby coverage last week. Two evenings in a row, the ratings for news specials on the birth and then the hospital departure of Kate Middleton and Prince William beat out the BBC. Jonathan Munro has been serving as ITV News acting editor since the recent departure of Deborah Turness, who took over NBC News. 

He spoke to THR about the royal baby coverage, his competition and his team's priorities.

The Hollywood Reporter: You beat out the BBC with some of your coverage. Why do you think ITV did so well?

Jonathan Munro: We have built a good reputation for royal coverage over the last few years. We did a good job that we were very proud of covering the jubilee and the royal wedding two years ago. The day before the birth, we did a program at 9 p.m., which won its slot, so there was a bit of traction, which was really helpful. Also, the baby emerged just after our normal evening news slot. We originally thought it may come during the regularly scheduled program. But people were aware through social media, and there was an audience there with a hunger there, and they stayed with us. Third, the 7 p.m. slot is normally a very positive slot for ITV because that is when [long-running soap opera] Emmerdale normally airs, which is a ratings juggernaut, so there is a built-in advantage at that time.
That said, we were really pleased that we managed to hang on and that people didn't channel hop, but stayed with us. And it was nice to get an audience and lose sleep over a positive story. We usually lose sleep over tragedy.

THR: You knew that there would be a couple of key events in covering the royal baby -- its birth and its first appearance in public. How did you prepare to fill air time the rest of the time?

Munro: Yes, it was a really tricky one. We showed about 40 minutes of live shots of a door, which sounds very dull television, but it was actually compelling, because nobody wants to turn off or leave the room. We were able to hold people's attention by capitalizing on the sense of anticipation. Our presenters were very well-informed about the royal story. Tim Ewart, our royal correspondent, was really, really good at bringing insight and some humor to the story. He and some royal experts were having a really good conversation about the story over the pictures of the door.

THR: The BBC got several hundred complaints that it featured too much royal baby coverage and that its coverage was pro-monarchy. Did you get many complaints?

Munro: All broadcasters get that. We get opinions all the day. Most people contact us because they like what we do or because they have a question. We had a lot of positive and supportive comments on our coverage, but obviously you do get some people who think we are overexposing the story. But the ratings figures suggest that the vast majority of people liked it. We didn't get a huge or significant number of complaints about the volume of our coverage.

THR: What did you have to do to get Emmerdale moved back, and did ITV cancel or push back any other entertainment shows?

Munro: Emmerdale moved from 7 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. That isn't unheard of, but doesn't happen every day. We did the same thing when Kate and William got engaged, and ITV got the only interview with them. It's rare, but we like to think that ITV News reflects and adds a voice in the national conversation. And the national conversation was the baby. It was important to us to be at the forefront of that conversation. I think we proved that we had a role to play.

We began talking when we found out that they wouldn't leave the hospital before 6 p.m. For the longest time, we thought the likeliest thing to happen was that they would come out between 6 p.m. and 7 p.m. when we have the news on anyway. We had an active conversation with the network schedulers, and they were very supportive, so we could make the important decision very quickly as this was a moving target.

THR: The royal baby ratings were not as big as the Wimbledon final with Andy Murray, which, at its peak, drew 17.3 million viewers in the U.K. How big a story was it really?

Munro: We obviously don't know what kind of news may break, but I would be very surprised if any news program this year beats the 7.5 million that we got that Tuesday. When you compare it to Wimbledon, on Tuesday most channels were showing some coverage of William and Kate and the baby. If you add up all those ratings, it is an awful lot of people. BBC One got 3.5 million that Tuesday evening. Together that's nearly 11 million, plus then there was Channel 4 and BBC News and Sky News. So the total audience is likely in the 12 million-13 million range. Wimbledon ratings are very high, because it is on only one channel.

THR: We wrote about how Tim Ewart got to ask the royal couple the first question when they left the hospital after a coin toss. For our readers abroad: Is the coin toss a regular occurrence here?

Munro: (laughs) There is a small group of royal TV correspondents that follows the royals. Tim is one of them, and he has counterparts at the BBC and Sky News. Everybody agreed that it was better to organize that rather than have a lot of questions shouted all at once. So somebody came up with the idea -- I don't know who it was, and Tim got to ask the first question. I think it was a really good idea because otherwise it would have been an absolute shouting match. It is the first time this has happened on this sort of story because we have never had a royal couple do questions of that type after having a baby. Hats off to William and Kate for agreeing to talk. It was a very good call that showed them in a very good light.

THR: Since Deborah Turness left recently, any idea when we will hear if you or someone else will do this job permanently? And what's the next big focus for your team?

Munro: I can not really go into that. Deborah and I worked very closely together. I have covered the job before when she was on maternity leave, so it's not a new thing for me.

THR: As you keep working as acting editor, what are you looking to do at ITV News? Anything new or different? Any key focus areas to stand out?

Munro: Where ITV News needs to be, regardless of who is the editor … ITV News needs to be the loud voice of a national conversation. It's about being a very pro-active voice on a  range of stories -- from things that are shocking and horrific or uplifting and joyous like the royal baby. We are a broadcaster -- we want to appeal across all parts of the British population to be the news provider that is in tune with what Britain is talking about and bringing in high-impact reporting from abroad. For example, we recently did a project from a reporter embedded with refugees in a camp on the Syrian border and the dreadful conditions of child laborers in Bangladesh. As a newsroom, our objective is that there are no no-go areas -- whether they are hard-hitting investigative stories or a big national event, we want to set the pace on it.

THR: Do you follow your U.S. and other international competition, such as CNN or Fox News, much and does it provide much ratings competition here in the U.K.?

Munro: We keep an eye on what people are doing because there is no monopoly on good ideas in this business. We work with CNN and NBC as clients and corporate partners. There isn't a massive impact in the U.K. market from foreign-based news channels. British people are familiar with them when they go abroad, but don't watch so much when they are in the U.K. The market is quite domestic here.

E-mail: Georg.Szalai@THR.com
Twitter: @georgszalai

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