ITV in mission to save McDonald's ailing `Tonight' in

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The Independent Online
ITV DENIED yesterday that it was trying to rescue its flagship current affairs programme, the critically panned Tonight With Trevor McDonald, despite cutting its length and moving it to another night.

The programme is a key part of the ITV schedule because of the death of News at Ten. Tonight was used by ITV to convince the television regulator that it is committed to current affairs in peak viewing times and so helped to secure permission to move its main news to 6.30pm. After an extensive tendering process, ITV presented Granada with the pounds 10m-a-year contract to produce a programme modelled on America's 60 Minutes.

Granada poached Martin Bashir, the BBC journalist who secured the interview with Diana, Princess of Wales for Panorama, to boost the popularity of the show. But the programme, which has replaced World in Action, has been attacked for its lightweight investigations, focusing on consumer, health and crime stories. Its ratings average about 4.5 million a week, some way behind News at Ten's average of six million.

Now the programme is to be cut be 15 minutes and moved from 10pm on Thursdays to 10.15pm on Wednesdays - a slot that should guarantee the show the best ratings legacy ITV has to offer.

The network has the contract to broadcast Champions' League football matches on Wednesday nights for the next four years. The international football competition will push Coronation Street to a later time, allowing Sir Trevor McDonald's programme to follow it and inherit one of the biggest audiences of the week.

For its part ITV claims the change is being made so that documentaries, such as the Second World War in Colour, which starts next week, can take over the 10pm slot on Thursdays.

But there has been speculation for weeks that Tonightneeded more of a boost and a move has been expected. "If they cannot make a success of it in this slot, they can't make it work anywhere," said one of ITV's rivals.

However, ITV maintains that it is strongly behind the programme, and a spokesman for Granada said: "It's not a relaunch, there is to be no change of format or presenters or of editorial direction."

Last week John Humphrys, the presenter of the Today programme on Radio 4, said that the programme was an example of slipping standards in television journalism, describing it as "meretricious tabloid pap". But Granada's spokesman said the programme had covered such topics as the Serbs' use of chemical weapons and new treatments for autism. Last night's showlooked at whether speed cameras aided road safety.

Overall ITV says its peak- time schedule is still settling in after the move of News at Ten. Bond movies and the quiz, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, have held ratings steady, but viewing figures are always down in the summer months. The real test of ITV's strategy will come with this autumn's season of programmes.