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Beginning of a new age

Sean Coughlan reports on the BBC's plans for a digital broadcasting future. The BBC is going digital - a major upheaval in broadcasting technology that promises new television and radio channels, improved picture quality, links to the Internet and extra services for education.

Introducing the BBC's plans to take advantage of digital technology, the Corporation's newly-installed chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, said that in the next 10 years "the broadcasting landscape will be transformed". The current analogue transmission system, which has been used for the past 75 years, is to be replaced by signals sent in digital form - a change that will create space for more channels and interactive services.

Director-general John Birt emphasised the significance of "the digital age", in which broadcasting will converge with multimedia publishing, telecommunications and home computing, with a single screen accessing all these technologies. Television programmes, he forecast, would be just one element in the information superhighway, alongside "transactional" services, such as home banking, shopping and distance learning.

Looking further ahead, Mr Birt pointed to the development of video-on-demand channels, in which viewers would call up news, entertainment and education programmes, allowing them to watch what they wanted, when they wanted.

By 1998, he predicted, the first digital services will become available, with a 24-hour news and current affairs channel, challenging CNN and Sky News. This would be available free, but only for those with television sets adapted to receive digital signals. As with all the digital services, the channel would be broadcast in a wide-screen format with improved picture definition and CD-quality sound.

The BBC will also offer a digital "side channel", which would supplement programmes on BBC1 and BBC2, offering follow-up material and extra programmes. As an example, Mr Birt said that after showing Pride and Prejudice on BBC1, the third digital channel could offer a documentary on Jane Austen, as an alternative to the programming on the two main channels. This digital channel could also carry continuous coverage of events, such as sports or major breaking news stories.

The BBC's policy document, Extending Choice in the Digital Age, which lays out its plans for the next decade, predicts: "Education will be one of the first areas to benefit from the digital age. The new technology will be available in schools and colleges before it reaches most homes. A key feature of the technology is the way it allows users to interact with the material they are receiving. Interactive programs which can be used on computers, or eventually on-demand from the television, will transform on-screen education."

The greater capacity created by the switch to digital broadcasting will allow educational programmes to be supported with extra information - for example, the BBC says that its Learning Zone programmes, broadcast at night-time, could be supplemented with graphs, maps and other data, carried on a digital signal.

The BBC's plans for education also include making use of the Internet "to tailor advice and information to individual needs. For instance, it will be possible to put learners in touch with teachers on-line and provide them with localised information about courses". A commercial BBC Internet service is also to be announced later this year, with the Corporation working with an as yet unnamed partner.

This broadening of the concept of broadcasting will also see the development of more multimedia educational material, including CD-Roms built around footage from BBC classic drama productions, such as Shakespeare's plays.

As well as providing free digital channels, the BBC plans to launch subscription channels, at a price that has still to be announced. These will take advantage of the BBC's archive of programmes, in areas such as education, the arts, television drama, science and natural history. The timing of the launch and the number of channels involved remain uncertain, although the BBC has said that all programmes will be shown on BBC1 and BBC2 first, before becoming part of a subscription channel.

Radio's conversion to digital, in the form of "Digital Audio Broadcasting", is also going to allow for more channels, with proposed new services including "BBC Now", which would provide a news update every 10 minutes and "5 Live News Plus", which would provide a supplementary channel for Radio 5's news and current affairs. There has so far been no suggestion that this will see the return of school radio to daytime transmission (it moves to night-time in the autumn).

Mr Birt said that funding these ambitious plans for expansion will involve a combination of borrowing money, increasing income from commercial ventures and making "greater efforts for efficiency". The last is likely to mean further job losses.

Extending Choice in the Digital Age is available, priced Pounds 5, from the BBC Shop, PO Box IQX, Newcastle upon Tyne NE99 1QX. The text is available free on the Internet at

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