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Intellectual exercise in the dead of night

Do you want to get fit, know more about astronomy, help your child with maths or brush up your holiday French? Set your video recorder for 2am and you could do just that this summer - and perhaps also score a few accreditation points towards a degree.

So goes the thinking behind a new programming initiative by the BBC. Called Summer Nights, it is located in the Learning Zone, the BBC's night-time education service (12.30 - 7.15am), which is occupied in term time by more heavy-duty educational output including the Open University, schools and further education broadcasts and some BBC language output.

Broadcast between June 24 and September 13 from 2 to 4am on Monday through to Friday mornings, Summer Nights covers a different theme each week: health and fitness, art, photography, fun with kids (ideas for holiday projects that parents and children can enjoy together including "help your child with maths, reading and science" programmes), sport, the great outdoors (making the most of your garden and the countryside), music, books, astronomy, history, and arts and crafts. All the programmes are archive material.

Each week will begin with a two-hour compilation, Essentials, which is designed to encourage interest and provide ideas. Also broadcast in August, from 4am will be two hours of BBC French, Spanish, German, Italian and Greek language programmes.

Leaflets accompany the programmes for viewers who want to carry an interest further. Accreditation, say from the Open College, is also being considered - a history scheme in particular will be piloted. "If people want to send off for course-related material and then do further study and write an essay, they may eventually be able to gain points towards a degree," says Catherine McCarthy, editor of the Learning Zone.

The initiative is indicative of the growing success of night-time broadcasting. BBC researchers report 2.2 million viewers a week, not counting those who record the programmes and watch later. With 85 per cent of adults now having access to video recorders, the timing of programmes is increasingly irrelevant - broadcasters are becoming more enthused by what were once regarded as dead slots.

The Summer Nights initiative also enables the BBC to use its vast store of archive material. But will the ordinary viewer be interested? "I could see myself videoing programmes on music, books and the great outdoors and I might get some good ideas for school from the Fun for Kids programmes," says Pat McDonnell, deputy head of a Cheshire primary school.

Valery Coughlin, a special needs teacher at a London comprehensive, can envisage recording the arts programmes for her school work. "It's sad when children go into an art class and don't feel able to do anything. Such programmes might motivate or encourage them." As a special needs teacher, she is also interested to see how the programmes suggest parents help teach reading. What methods would they use? Would they suggest ways of helping children with dyslexia?

Mary Heathcote, a London civil servant with young children, likes the idea of the Fun with Kids activities and the more directly educational Help your Child withI programmes. "But I wouldn't be willing to trawl through two hours or more of programming to get what I want or, worse still, to find that I didn't want it. I'd need to know in advance whether it would be useful for my children. What age group is it targeted at? What sort of activities?" Catherine McCarthy is well aware of the need for publicity. A leaflet will go out to at least 100,000 people who have already made contact with Learning Zone programmes, and advertisements will appear regularly on BBC2. Radio Times will publish the schedule. But more detailed information will be harder to obtain - though the particulars of some programmes may appear in Radio Times, for others it will be necessary to ring a BBC Education Information Line. But night-time broadcasting for recording looks certain to stay. "Summer Nights is still in its experimental stage," says Catherine McCarthy. "We will review it and research it very thoroughly". It's early days - or nights.

The BBC Education Information Line is 0181 746 1111

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