Although "Why in the World?," a weekly current-events series aimed at high-school audiences, was conceived by Walter Cronkite and has been publicized with his name prominently attached to it, the program actually doesn't feature the TV news veteran. But that's okay. Cronkite appears briefly to introduce the series -- "the realization of a dream of mine, to use national television to show the link between the classroom and current events" -- and turns the show over to another broadcast dean, Fred Friendly, who leads a group of high-school students in a lively, probing discussion about the idea of news.

Ironically, WETA has scheduled the 30-minute, weekly program, which premieres today at 6 p.m., opposite three real news programs.

During a mock story conference, Friendly gives the students two stories and asks them to choose one for the front page: in one, the mayor of a major metropolitan city witnesses a minor traffic accident and puts a note on the damaged car; in the other, the mayor announces that a costly housing project is going bankrupt. When Friendly asks about the news value of the first story, one girl answers, "It's excellent publicity for the mayor."

"Are you in the business of getting excellent publicity for the mayor? Or are you there to report the news?" Friendly asks.

Friendly also uses anecdotes: "My mother told me, 'What you don't know won't hurt you.' But she was wrong . . . What we don't know as a nation could kill us."

As Cronkite explains in the introduction, each week a different "guest guide" will lead a discussion on a specific event in the news, and the series, co-produced by Satellite Educational Services and KCET/Los Angeles, is intended for classroom use. On the basis of the first program, "Why in the World?" could prove an original, stimulating learning tool.