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BBC plugs into new age for television

The BBC yesterday staked its claim to a central role in the digital revolution, promising UK viewers wide-screen television, CD-quality sound and a 24- hour news channel in additional to its standard service.

The blueprint, published yesterday as "Extending Choice in the Digital Age," contains the first indications of how the public service broadcaster intends to respond to the new digital world.

"We could ignore the new technologies and let our beards grow," John Birt, the BBC's director-general, said yesterday. "That option, perhaps beguiling for some, is not sustainable."

Viewers will also be offered "extended" services at the push of a button. For instance, during an episode of EastEnders, viewers will be able to call up information on the stars and on recent plot developments.

Digital customers also will be offered additional programmes at certain hours - perhaps a viewing of Waiting for Godot, following a scheduled Bookmark programme on the playwright Samuel Beckett.

The proposed new services would be available to any viewer with a set- top box designed to unscramble digital terrestrial television signals.

The BBC intends to offer pay-TV programming, in the form of themed channels, on a subscription basis, probably in partnership with private-sector companies. Mr Birt denied this would lead to a "two-tier" BBC. "We understand the sensitivity," he said. "But the extra services would be in addition to programmes paid for by the licence fee."

The digital service is planned from 1998. Mr Birt said the switch, expected to cost as much as pounds 200m, would be financed from savings, the privatisation of the BBC's transmission services and borrowing. The licence payer would not foot the bill, he said, although there could be significant job cuts as a result of the efficiency drive.

Yesterday's announcement will give a boost to the Government's plans to introduce digital terrestrial television. The broadcasting industry has been concerned about the proposals, particularly about the cost of switching to digital. Industry insiders have questioned whether consumers would pay as much as pounds 400 for receiving equipment.

The ITV companies this week agreed in principle to launch their own digital services on terrestrial television. Channel 4 is considering its options. The race to digitise has been driven by the success of satellite and cable broadcasters. BSkyB, the satellite giant 40 per cent owned by Rupert Murdoch, this week confirmed it would launch digital satellite services from the autumn of next year.

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