Accountancy and Management: Raising standards via the small screen: Roger Trapp looks forward to autumn programmes that will pioneer late-night television for accountants

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THE THOUGHT of late-night television for accountants has so far managed to raise little more than a smile. It is a sure- fire cure for insomnia, the cynics say.

But next month that thought moves closer to reality with the screening of the introductory programme that heralds the arrival of the service proper on 1 October.

And Petre Sefton, for one, regards it as an exciting development at a time when the profession - in the words of the Chinese curse - is going through interesting times.

She would, though. She is chief executive of Accountancy Television, the 'unique consortium' made up of the main accounting professional bodies in the UK and Ireland, leading training company Brierley Price Prior and BBC Select, the corporation's subscription television service, that will be running the initiative, called Business Account.

But for all her enthusiasm she is under no illusions about the size of her task. Although the programmes will be screened scrambled for recording on video machines so that no one will be expected to sit up until the small hours to watch them, they will be covering subjects that do not readily lend themselves to riveting television. Nor are accountants as a breed noted for their televisual capabilities.

'We are trying to build up a repertoire company of qualified people in special areas. We are going to train them in TV techniques,' Ms Sefton says.

The programmes will follow a magazine format, with each hour-long weekly slot split between a variety of subjects. The style will be documentary and the contents a mixture of news and features.

An editorial board composed of representatives of consortium members and guided by former Accountancy Age editor Peter Williams will pick the subjects.

With the increasing complexity of accountancy making it difficult for even those in big firms with heavily-staffed technical departments to keep up, part of the aim of the service is to inform those working in industry and commerce and the smaller accounting firms of developments and their implications.

But Ms Sefton and her colleagues also see an important place for training - hence the involvement of BPP, one of the big three accountancy training suppliers.

'I am determined to be saying to companies: 'This is what's happening in audit, say, and this is what you should be expecting.' It is about raising standards, and that is important,' says Ms Sefton, a non-accountant who has spent many years producing legal publications with Wolters Kluwer for non-legally trained people.

'It is a completely new approach to training. I see us as a road map. We're going to be saying: 'Here are the issues. Worry about this now, leave that to later.' I see this as a real godsend to the two- partner firm in Macclesfield.'

To this end the programmes will be supplemented by a glossy magazine. 'A lot of people have made a mistake with video,' Ms Sefton says, pointing out that, while the medium has many strengths, it is not a substitute for written material.

Another factor behind this decision is the awareness that, whatever the constraints posed by the subject matter, the producers must make programmes to national television standards. 'If the programmes are not good enough the BBC will refuse to show them,' Ms Sefton says.

The basic price is pounds 750, which includes a decoder worth more than pounds 200, installation and a smart card. Otherwise costs are linked to the size of the undertaking.

For those in public practice the subscription is based on the number of partners in the firm. In the commercial sector it is linked to the number of employees - in the company as a whole rather than just the accounts department, because it is felt that the service is of value to those outside the strictly financial area. With large companies the price is negotiable.

This extensive and varied constituency poses a further problem - how do you appeal to everyone without making the programmes so general that they are of little use? You don't, Ms Sefton says.

She expects some segments to be of interest to all, but others to attract only those in public practice and still others to appeal to people in industry. Only about 20 minutes of each hour-long programme is likely to be of interest to any one subscriber, she says. This is the value of the magazine format.

With other professionals - including doctors and lawyers - about to tap the BBC's unused late-night airwaves, accountants are unlikely to be the only people watching the unscrambled trial programmes being screened at about 2.15am on Thursdays in September and October.

(Photograph omitted)