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Colin Butler offers a selection of German TV

Astra, the satellite that brings Sky, also provides most German television free and unencoded, so keeping your German fresh is just a question of pressing the right buttons. All times given here are British times.

For volume of information, nothing beats Berlins N-TV (Channel 48), with news transmissions hourly and headlines half-past every hour. Then, at 19.15 on weekdays, Das Thema explores selected topics in depth while, at 20.00, Der Abend Bei N-TV takes a longer look at headline stories.

N-TV also broadcasts high-quality talk shows and magazine programmes, repeated at various times in the week. To see what is on offer either switch to teletext while N-TV is on or go to N-TV's website (www.n-tv.deteletext). Other stations can be similarly accessed.

Of the magazine programmes, I follow Motor - a mix of new models and comparison tests - and Schon Und Vital, which chatters engagingly about obesity, bent noses and the like. Also interesting are Abenteuer Und Reisen (holidays in outlandish places) and Magazin, a survey of electronic media innovations.

The talk shows reflect the fact that Berlin is now the nation's capital. On Maischberger, the award-winning Sandra Maischberger amiably skins her VIP guests layer by layer, as does the feline Erich Bohme's Talk In Berlin. In Der Grune Salon, Bohme gangs up with CDU politician Heinz Eggert to pressure the mighty, and the loftier Spath Am Spath sees Lothar Spath in discussion with the likes of ex-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Finally, Zu Gast Bei Manfred Schell demnstrates the dying art of asking intelligent questions and waiting for the answers. The language gain from all these programmes is high.

MDR's MDR Aktuell at 18.30 on Channel 47 is a regionally tinged national news programme, or try ARD's Die Tagesschau at 19.00 on Channel 37. Die Tagesschau is news broadcasting old-style: stories read from sheets of paper in a neutral, dispassionate voice; but coverage is extensive and you can hear every word.

On the lighter side, DSF (Channel 70) carries Formula 1 motor racing highlights at 19.15 after the race, and BR-Alpha (Channel 80) is currently listing Kunst Und Krempel (The Antiques Road Show) on its teletext for Sundays at 14.50. I have seen it on another channel: the experts sit and the hopefuls stand, as befits a German version.

Later on Sundays, at 19.15, is BR-Alpha's popular astronomy programme, Alpha-Centauri. Big Brother, Wer Wird Millionar? and Der Schwachste Fliegt feature on RTL WORLD (Channel 42), and its teletext tells you how to become part of the shows. N3 (Channel 41) carries Visite, a top-notch health programme, on Tuesdays at 19.15.

Football seems not to be confined to any single channel but searching for it is worth the effort: German television still believes in having a single, knowledgeable commentator who does not talk all the time.

Before Christmas and Easter, MDR carries performances from St Thomas's church in Leipzig of Bach's The Christmas Oratorio, St Matthew Passion and the like.

Dr Colin Butler is senior English master at Borden Grammar School, Sittingbourne, Kent

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