Welcome to the twilight zone

Bill Hicks

Bill Hicks looks ahead to the witching hours, when the BBC begins transmitting an eclectic educational schedule. The "dark hours" on BBC2, between closedown and dawn, are set to be used for enlightening viewers, as BBC Education launches a weekday night-time service. From October 9, the Learning Zone will provide programmes for schools, the Open University and individual learners, and Basil Fawlty will be lending an unhelpful hand in FETV television for further education colleges.

"This is not an experiment, nor a stop-gap," says the Learning Zone's managing editor Paul Gerhardt, as education takes over the night hours that have previously, and unsuccessfully, been used for subscription-television schemes. The new education service is designed for teachers and students to record programmes on videotape: most schools programmes are used as recordings, rather than viewed at the time they are broadcast.

Gerhardt's team has constructed a schedule that he calls an "Open University sandwich", with slices of Open University programming separated by layers of items for schools and further education. The Open Universitybegins at 12. 30am, followed at 2.00am (on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays) by Night School, in which there will be re-runs of popular schools programmes. The first weeks will include Sex Education and the history and geography series, Landmarks, sub-titled for deaf children.

Language series including archive blockbusters, Italianissimo and The French Experience will run in a two-hour Continuing Education block on Mondays, beginning at 4am. In this slot for the rest of the week will be BBC Focus a new open-access strand for independently-produced programmes from outside the BBC.

Other groups taking up the offer of free BBC airtime this autumn are the Royal College of Nursing, the Basic Skills Agency, Scope and the National Council for Educational Technology (see ComputersIT page 17) which is presenting a series on information technology.

As an example, in the second week of BBC Focus there will be a Royal Institution Lecture, an adult literacy series and programmes for the disabled, in Disability Today.

For the autumn term only, the Learning Zone ends with a technology special (6.00-7.15am), with re-runs of mainstream science programmes such as Pandora's Box, Perpetual Motion, QED and The Great Egg Race. Further themed strands are planned for holiday periods, since the Learning Zone will run for 50 weeks of the year, not just in term time.

Once the poor relation in educational broadcasting, it is arguably the further education sector which has most to gain from the new schedules. At 2.00am (Mondays) will be The Collectables, an FETV series that repackages existing BBC series such as A Way With Numbers and Channel Hopping.

At the same time on Friday morning, the further education slot has Short Cuts, covering a range of curriculum themes in a series of compilations from mainstream programmes. Thus clips from Fawlty Towers, the news, The Rough Guide to Careers and Chef find themselves cheek-by-jowl in the Working With Food programme (October 20). Other topics for the autumn will include job-seeking, fashion, the media and art.

"When we asked further education teachers what they wanted, over and again we were told it wasn't new programmes they wanted us to repackage existing material," Gerhardt explains. What they get is a one or two-hour package of "trigger material", cemented together by graphics, indexed for convenient VCR use. It almost goes without saying that the Learning Zone will have its own World Wide Web site on the Internet for back-up information.

Gerhardt is confident that objections to night-time broadcasts that many schools were simply not well enough equipped to ensure all the required programmes were taped, no longer apply. "People now recognise this is the natural way to use the programmes."

Given the general population's enduring inability to programme a VCR, however, it's perhaps just as well that the Learning Zone will be one of the first BBC transmissions to benefit from "PDC" (programme delivery control), the system already used by Channel 4, which sends precise instructions to VCRs over the air to start and stop recordings (provided you have a new PDC-equipped VCRs, that is). The PDC system, Gerhardt says, should arrive in the south-east only for the Learning Zone in early October, a month before the rest of BBC2; the system is likely to go nationwide next year.

Further information is available from BBC Education on 0181 746 1111.

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