BBC unveils pounds 10m digital channel

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The Independent Online
THE BBC will launch a digital television channel today, BBC Knowledge, which aims to educate the young. Some pounds 10m of licence fee money has been spent on the channel, which is likely to re-ignite the controversy over the BBC's expansionist ambitions.

The corporation has already admitted to losing about pounds 15m of licence fee money on BBC World - a news and current affairs network - and has spent about pounds 20m on News 24.

The BBC's critics, including some of the failed candidates to be the next director-general, have said too much cash is being spent on launching channels, and the BBC should be downsized. The newspaper editors Andrew Neil and Will Hutton both argue that the BBC is spreading its funds too thinly.

The BBC is making enemies in the television industry by arguing that some of the money for the new channels should come from a "digital licence fee", of possibly pounds 30, which will be levied on everyone who subscribes to digital television. BSkyB has described the proposal as a "digital poll tax", and written in protest to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Chris Smith.

The BBC insists channels such as BBC Knowledge are at the heart of "the new BBC". The channel is, says its founder Liz Cleaver, "accessible", and will appeal to a younger audience with "highest connectivity and a wired attitude".

Many of the presenters are more Blue Peter than Panorama, and Internet- related activities will start to appear on television screens.

A current affairs series, Have Words, for instance, is "for everyone who ever feels the urge to shout at their television screen when they hear an expert talking about current affairs". It will broadcast public issues-oriented shows, and invite comments that can be registered on a BBC website.

The programme will then be rebroacast on a split screen, with the viewers' opinions showing on one side. It is, according to BBC Knowledge, a sign of the future, when programmes will be interactive, with viewers' comments being broadcast simultaneously.

The BBC is keen to emphasise the light-hearted flavour of other programmes. Language programmes will benefit from the "irrepressible and bawdy sense of humour" of the presenter, the comedian Jenny Eclair, and will take a "fresh and fruity" look at French, Spanish, Italian and German.

A programme about the Internet will be presented by "a posse of punk professors" and a soap opera in Spanish will be "Dallas meets Bonanza - a steamy saga of betrayal... bandanas and heaving bosoms".

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