ITV companies bicker over flagship news show

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The Independent Online
A DISPUTE involving Trevor McDonald over the final shape of ITV's flagship current affairs show is delaying the launch of the programme, originally conceived as a British version of the US show Sixty Minutes.

Under heavy pressure from network executives and Mr McDonald, the anointed anchorman, Granada Television has been forced to compromise on more and more of its plans. The weekly, late-night show was originally due to appear on TV screens next month but is now unlikely to go out until March.

The latest wrangle focuses on whether essential elements of World in Action, which used to fill the slot, including the name itself, should be maintained. Sixty Minutes typically carries three items over an hour, not all of them as hard hitting as the single issue that would be addressed by World in Action.

Throughout the bidding process last spring, the winning team at Granada wanted to keep the old name, but to hit the public with a newly acquired top-rank presenter. Jeremy Paxman was top of the presenter wish-list for much of this period, although he never put his name to the Granada bid and signed a new contract with the BBC soon afterwards.

The company's successful proposal for the hour-long magazine show acknowledged the valuable recognition-factor attached to World in Action's name, established over more than 35 years and otherwise destined for almost certain oblivion. Nevertheless, the show's putative editor, Jeff Anderson, may now have to accept the alternative title of "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" - or even "Sixty Minutes".

Researchers are currently assessing public reaction to these and other rival programme names. Auditions for co-presenters are also underway and an announcement is promised soon. "We are still negotiating contracts," a spokesman for the television company said. "We have been considering several names."

Younger, female newscasters, such as ITN's 27-year-old Katie Derham, and Daljit Dhaliwal, the presenter of ITN's World News in America and already a star in New York, are thought to be among those signings considered extremely desirable. Kirsty Young, the much-vaunted "coming thing" is contracted to Channel 5 until the end of next year.

Channel 4 News is increasingly possessive about rising stars Krishnan Guru-Murthy and Kirsty Lang, yet along with other outsiders, such as former sports presenter Garth Crooks, they are names to watch for.

Whether, on the other hand, Granada has enough money to woo nascent talent like this is another question entirely. Much of the pounds 200,000 which ITV is believed to have agreed to pay for each hour-long edition is already spoken for.

Mr McDonald, the network's choice of anchorman, does not come cheap and most of the rest will be used to pay for the large support staff needed to resource a major current affairs programme.

Already on board, again at a dear price, is the high-profile interviewer Martin Bashir. He was poached for a two-year term from the BBC this autumn for close to pounds 500,000, after making his name by interviewing the Princess of Wales and Louise Woodward. He is to contribute filmed reports and interviews on a regular basis.

Although pounds 200,000 per show sounds like a lot of cash, an equivalent-length drama might cost in the region of pounds 350,000 and the price tag on a mere half-hour of current affairs is conventionally closer to pounds 150,000.

The controversy over the title of the new programme is just one symptom of the tug of war between Granada and ITV. One insider explained some of the forces that are pulling in opposite directions. "It would have been an enormous decision not to go with Granada, after all the accumulated history," he said. "But when the network made its choice they knew they would not necessarily get everything they wanted. They want a radical approach and yet with the security of familiar faces. Granada was prepared to be more radical and yet was wedded to the World In Action inheritance."

Competing tenders to make the programme came from United News and Carlton. The final selection was made this summer by ITV's controller of programmes, David Liddiment, by the network chief Richard Eyre and by Steve Anderson, the brother of Granada's Jeff Anderson. But ITV has stressed from the first that this family link has never been deliberately kept quiet and that Mr Liddiment and Mr Eyre had equal input in the choice.

The advantage, if there is one, to delaying the launch of the new show is that ITV and Granada will get to see the format and the scheduling favoured by their opposite numbers across the airwaves.

Channel 4 News unveiled its trendy new year revamp this week, while the BBC is still playing its cards close to its chest. A new 6pm show, dubbed by the media "Son of Nationwide", is planned for next year, but a spokesman for the corporation could only confirm that the show will feature half an hour of London-based news followed "seamlessly" by regional current affairs. "It will be more like 'Grandson of Nationwide'," he said. "But other details will be released next year."

Whether we are invited to spend "Tonight with Trevor McDonald" or not, some are convinced that Granada has been handed a poisoned chalice. Its editors must attract more viewers than News At Ten which, although it often had an audience of around six million for the headlines, dropped to as low as three million after 10.15pm. Advertisers in the first commercial break will not find anything less than that appealing.

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