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Lessons from on high

A multilingual education channel on satellite is being planned by the European Broadcasting Union. Sean Coughlan reports. The European Broadcasting Union is planning a multilingual educational satellite channel, which will provide programmes for schools, colleges and adults across the continent.

At the annual meeting of the EBU's educational broadcasting section, held in Oslo this month, it was decided to press ahead with plans for the launch of a European Education Television Channel.

"There is an audience for education on television," says Chris Jelley, chair of the EBU's education specialists group and controller of education at Yorkshire Television. "And public service broadcasters across Europe have an enormous stock of material to draw upon. What has to be proved now is that there is sufficient demand for an education channel that can be financially self-sufficient, and that audiences in Europe are ready to watch programmes that have been dubbed."

With a distinctively European flavour, the proposed channel will make a virtue out of the diversity of languages and cultures among its multinational audience. "We want to ensure that young people have the opportunity to see programmes from other parts of Europe dubbed into their own language," says Chris Jelley.

The channel's range of programmes will include those popular enough to draw a general audience as well as more explicitly educational items with enough academic roughage to be of use to school and college curriculums. After the developmental stage, Chris Jelley says that he envisages the channel being funded by subscriptions and multimedia publishing spin-offs, with the education channel being sold to subscribers as part of a bundle of stations.

Education has so far made little substantial impact on the satellite schedules and the EBU's education specialists in Oslo felt that the time was right for an education channel to take its place alongside the satellite sprawl of entertainment, news and sport, particularly in languages other than the ubiquitous American-English.

A blueprint for how this could be achieved was presented to the meeting by Eurfron Gwynne Jones, former director of education at the BBC, who has been commissioned by the EBU to carry out a feasibility study for the channel. This lays out the plans for a stage by stage approach, beginning with the setting up this year of a specialist unit of broadcasters seconded from educational television departments, to be followed next year by a pilot service to test the practicalities of commissioning, dubbing, adapting and supporting programmes for an audience that stretches from Iceland to Jerusalem.

Within a year of this trial period beginning it is likely to be based in Sweden the satellite service would then take to the air, using airtime on existing channels such as Discovery and Arte.

"Think global, deliver local," said Eurfron Gwynne Jones, introducing the principles of the project, which she believes could help educational broadcasters find new markets for their programmes and make the most of the convergence of television and new technologies, as well as finding a way out of the threat to this undernourished sector of Europe's television. The arrival of the education channel is a "question of when, rather than if," she says.

The initial launch of the channel is dependent on negotiating financial backing, both from the EBU and an assortment of European funding institutions, including the grant-making bodies "Eureka", "Socrates" and "Leonardo". But this will be helped by the nomination of 1996 as the European Year of Education and Training for Life, which should put political wind in the sails of the project. Also adding political impetus to the channel has been the inclusion of education as an aspect of the Maastricht Treaty, bringing the potential of more funding under the auspices of the European Union's education commission.

Support for the plan was widespread among the EBU delegates, on the understanding, as the Swedish representative said, that the new international satellite channel would be an addition, rather than a substitute for domestic education programmes. This concern was also expressed by the Finnish delegate, who saw the channel as a "big chance, as long as funding is in addition to current spending".

This anxiety reflected the battering that educational broadcasting has taken in the Eighties, with deregulation and financial constraints on public service television putting education departments under pressure. The Norwegian hosts, NRK, reported a gloomy outlook for education, where the remaining staff were "working harder with less money" and where the adult education programmes had been pushed to times when "everyone is either out or asleep".

But there were signs of a comeback for educational broadcasting, with the six-months-old French cultural channel, La Cinqui me, reporting ratings and critical successes for its mix of high-brow arts and education. And John MacMahon, representing the Irish state broadcaster, RTE, said that after more than a decade without producing schools programmes, there were signs in legislation currently under consideration that the government wanted to develop educational broadcasting again.

Perhaps unfairly best known for such cultural lowlights as the Eurovision Song Contest and Jeux Sans Fronti res, the EBU has a 45-year track record of acting as the forum for co-operation among European public service broadcasters. Based in Geneva, with an annual budget of over Pounds 180 million, the EBU has a current membership of 115 broadcasting companies from 78 countries, including, since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the national broadcasting companies of eastern Europe.

Along with being a forum for such projects as the satellite channel, the annual EBU education specialist meeting also allows for the arrangement of co-productions, intended to allow companies to share the costs of making programmes. This takes place in a kind of polygamous Blind Date, in which representatives pick from the would-be partners on offer. In Oslo, among the many ideas on offer, the Czech delegation wanted to share funds and facilities for a history of religious wars, the Swiss were looking to produce a follow-up programme to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, while the Belgians wanted partners to produce a series under the apocalyptic working title of Science at the Edge of Chaos.

Channel 4's commissioning editor for schools television, Paul Ashton, called for particular co-operation among broadcasters from countries with national curriculums, so that resources could be shared in filming specifically required material, say for science, geography or historical archive footage, which could be customised later to suit individual needs.

There are also sub-sections to the EBU's education gathering, with specific interest groups meeting during the year to discuss work in areas such as multi-racial education and language teaching. An observation gained from this pan-European perspective was that anti-racist television programmes were concentrated in northern Europe, while in the south of Europe, where the problem arguably is more acute, there is little of such broadcasting.

This year details of another pioneering educational broadcasting experiment were announced, in the form of an interactive television project which would link European schools to a central computer server holding data and video images, which could be used by schools like a long-range CD-Rom. Robin Mudge, a producer at the BBC, introduced news of a pilot scheme that will soon allow schools in France and Germany to call up information from a shared server in Berlin, including schools television programmes provided by the BBC, like The Science Zone.

Educational television has often been the victim of change, but these EBU schemes point the way to making technological advances work for education. The diplomacy of satisfying the pride and pre-conceptions of all the participating countries is likely to be a labyrinthine process, but with political backing and funding a European education channel could be on air within two years.

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