Leading Article: Television's brand names

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FOR almost a quarter of a century the three flagships of current affairs television were Panorama, World in Action and This Week. Now there are two. This Week has gone down with Thames Television. Its initial replacement will be a bought-in, 13-week series, Storyline, to be shown earlier in the evening, at 7.30, in competition with EastEnders. Beyond the first three months the screen goes fuzzy. Those who run World in Action are aware of increasing pressure to justify their commercially valuable, prime-time slot by attracting viewers. Indeed there is no guarantee that World in Action will survive indefinitely. In contrast, Panorama's future is apparently secure, even if its audience dwindles.

The case against peak-time flagship current affairs programmes is being made with increasing confidence in the headquarters of some commercial companies. It is as follows: people will no longer tolerate being given, at prime viewing periods, programmes that some higher authority deems to be good for them. They will switch to one of a growing number of rival channels, including cable and satellite stations, if dissatisfied.

Moreover, the argument runs, it is no longer appropriate to measure a company's commitment to current affairs by the time- slot allocated to its prestige programme. The viewer should also look to current affairs-oriented news programmes such as Newsnight or the Channel Four News, 'one-offs', business programmes, those reporting media affairs, consumer programmes and even those that comment on sporting matters.

There is a degree of truth in such arguments. Audiences will, increasingly, fragment. Those who wish to avoid particular types of programmes will do so. And current affairs - albeit of the rolling news or sound- bite variety - does permeate the schedules. But consider the obligations imposed on the commercial companies by the Independent Television Commission. They are to provide 'a diverse and mixed schedule'. This is interpreted by the ITC as demanding, among other things, the broadcasting of serious current affairs programmes - and doing so at times that make them 'accessible to the audience at which they are aimed'. Even if this audience proved minimal, it would not be acceptable to the ITC to schedule serious current affairs for, say, the post-midnight hours.

Given the multiplicity of channels, and viewers' increased willingness to move between them, the recognition factor will grow in importance. Titles such as This Week, World in Action and Panorama send powerful signals to 'the audience at which they are aimed'. Reputations are built up over time and involve continuity. World in Action, for example, is known for its radical investigative journalism. Its reporters came back again and again to probe particular miscarriages of justice. This Week employed political interviewers and presenters who earnt credibility. Programmes bought in from independent producers will not carry the same prestige and authority as those made by the company that is screening them.

Successful brand names have great power in the market place. The same is surely true of prestige television programmes. To discard them lightly would be either ill-considered or a signal that, despite what they say, the companies are not over-serious in their commitment to quality current affairs.