Media: The day after the Tonight before

Investigative journalism or tabloid TV? Granada's crowd-pleasing current affairs show must decide. By Steve Boulton
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If you have shares in ITV, Thursday nights at around 10pm might be a good time to adopt old-time religion. The people who run the ITV Network Centre are making a pounds 14m attempt to find the Holy Grail of television journalism: the chalice of popularity with credibility.

When Trevor McDonald says hello on the bright new Tonight set, will his producers have unearthed the "current affairs show which is consistently popular, but authoritative enough to keep the industry regulators happy?" Will the unveiling of the show's magazine format "get the tabloids talking but win grudging admiration from the broadsheets"?

If Tonight can crack these dilemmas, a lot of people at ITV will shout Hallelujah, and not just those who view journalism the way Top Gear regards public transport. At Granada TV, where the long-running - and hugely profitable - World in Action was scrapped to make way for the McDonald hour, there will be a collective release of breath.

Last week's hour-long Martin Bashir interview with the Stephen Lawrence Five was a PR coup designed to launch Tonight and to establish its credentials for scoop journalism. But the single-issue format and the subject matter - which could easily have been a Panorama, a Dispatches or (whisper it) a World in Action - tell us little about the identity of ITV's new flagship.

Tonight's true shape as a magazine show driven by personality presenters will emerge from this week, as will its agenda. And it's on this template - not the Bashir interrogations - that ITV and Granada are gambling a lot of prestige and a fair whack of money.

The bid document which won Granada - with ITN as a minor partner - the contract for the series was leaked to the press in January. Tonight is likely to devote most of its slots to news-related items, but this will not be news as Jeremy Paxman or Jon Snow understand it. There will be personality profiles (George Michael and Judy Finnegan alongside Mo Mowlam); "hidden angles"; features (what Coronation Street's Deirdre would find if she'd really been sent to prison); and, crucially, jokey stunts. (Lord Irvine gets unsolicited DIY advice from a cut-price wallpaper baron.) "It's stunts like these," enthused Granada to a private audience of three ITV executives, "that will get this programme talked about."

Perhaps one-quarter of each show will be devoted to an "original investigation", but the editor will be "ruthlessly discriminating" in commissioning these. Granada promised ITV that it had learnt key lessons from other popular factual shows - to choose "universal subjects", such as "airports, hotels, hospitals, animals, driving lessons".

Granada had a trial run at this agenda last autumn, using the remaining slots of World in Action to experiment, and raising audiences by a couple of per cent on the old version. In a single run, there were four programmes about things that can go wrong on your holidays, a similar fascination with food scares - even pet food - and a growing devotion to stunts and consumer journalism a la Watchdog. Very little on the main news agenda was covered and in-depth investigation vanished. If this remains the pattern, ITV will have said goodbye to regular, substantial journalism in its peak hour now that News at Ten has been replaced by a late bulletin.

It's unlikely that ITV - or Granada - will want to see it this way. Officially, Tonight with Trevor McDonald is being sold as proper current affairs, updated to modern tastes. Privately, there's a more sophisticated position, that nuggets of vintage current affairs will be smuggled out under cover of the human interest and knockabout stuff which will actually pull in the punters and keep the advertisers happy.

When I joined World in Action as the junior researcher in 1983, its role was explained to me by a veteran: "Our job, son, is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable." This was the heyday of investigative telly - of the British Steel papers, the Birmingham Six and - you heard it on World in Action first - Spycatcher.

To talk of afflicting the comfortable at Granada today would be to invite committal to the Motorway Services division, toilets section. The whole point of the ITV schedule is to attract precisely the audiences advertisers most like, young, affluent, aspiring. And it's these people the Granada show dearly wants to deliver, people whom their Tonight bid said felt "threatened" by traditional current affairs.

The advice being offered to newcomers to World in Action's successor is therefore very different. They are to get to the emotional heart of the story. Packaging is key. And the tone should be upbeat, lively, cheeky and entertaining.

Programme content, choice of presenters, even the rather tired title - last used in a doomed attempt to get Richard and Judy into peak-time - have been run through focus groups and market samples. This is journalism as the channel schedulers and the advertising sales department would prefer it, designed to interest the widest public. But is it in the public interest?

ITV current affairs was always intended to break moulds, to be brash in the days when its only rival was the stuffy BBC. Its agenda was always catholic - opening with nuclear weapons, but taking us also into the lives of a supermodel and a pirate radio ship.

The problem for flagship shows such as World in Action and Panorama has always been their omnipresence on TV. There are only so many weeks in the year when Mick Jagger gets out of jail; when a future Hollywood director hits on the perfect formula for dissecting the class system, or when you persuade five men accused of murder to break their silence, for that matter.

The original reason for these shows - to act as the big background to the week's news - disappeared long ago, when satellite, video and digital allowed the news itself to deliver rapid depth and analysis. Instead, all the big series, while not ignoring the big stories, found other roles, largely as investigative units, exposing corruption, describing social conditions and taking cameras to the sort of places that didn't turn up on the news bulletins.

Countless others attempted to repeat the trick, but only a few permeated the national consciousness for long, although This Week is still glorified - or vilified, to taste - for Death On The Rock, and First Tuesday for its campaign for the Guildford Four.

Significantly, the Tonight model - typified by US shows like CBS's Sixty Minutes - has done least well in the UK. ITV has been here before, amid an ocean of cash and hype on the unlamented Eyewitness from LWT. Yorkshire's 3D was an attempt to create a similar vehicle - short reports linked by ITN's glamorous Julia Somerville. Its demise last year left little trace.

The BBC has played with the format, too, and came closest to sustaining the ideal with the zappy Here & Now, devised in large part by Steve Anderson, who is now ITV's driving force behind Tonight. (His brother Jeff is Tonight's editor.) Here & Now may have been the most satisfying of the kind but it, too, failed the impact test and was pulled off in the autumn.

ITV believes Tonight will succeed where these failed because - this time - the formula will be right. Thanks to the market testing and the "lessons" learnt from docu-soap, it will try to feed back to the audience the kinds of stories the audience thinks it wants to hear, packaged in a way that entertains, but does not threaten, its aspirational appetites.

This is a definition of public service broadcasting founded on giving the public what they say they want, rather than attempting to define the public interest. Investigations into police corruption are a no-no, as the public prefers to trust the cops. Substantial stories about Ireland, politics and most of abroad are increasingly unlikely. Panorama will be publicly encouraged to do its duty and report on regional assemblies, the euro and multinationals, because that will widen public choice - and because such material further erodes BBC1's peaktime share.

All of this makes a kind of commercial sense, although the regulators at the ITC and the considerable institutional pride of Granada and ITN will want to hang on to as much credibility as they can. The hard act for them will be to keep the fluffy stuff in check enough to convince the discerning viewer that they're still dealing with authoritative telly.

Tonight's one-off show on the Lawrence murder was an editorial coup and a PR triumph, but it yielded an average of 4.77 million viewers, much lower than News at Ten got on a good night, and a great deal less than the six million or more that is Tonight's target. So what now for the public interest? Upbeat, lively, cheeky and entertaining, of course.

Steve Boulton worked on `World in Action' from 1983 to 1998. He was editor from 1994 to 1998. He now runs an independent company, working most recently for Channel 4's `Dispatches'.