Here is the desktop news: ITN's venture with IBM lets computer users access television reports when and how they want

LAST month Howard Davies and 70-odd members of the CBI spent an evening watching the news at ITN in London.

It wasn't the News At Ten; in fact, they weren't even looking at a television screen, and they could choose which news package to see next.

ITN was showing off Desktop News - an on-demand news service delivered by satellite to desktop computers - and demonstrating something it thinks will play a big part in the future of broadcasting.

Desktop News and Desktop Television, a corporate information service, are the first products of a joint venture between ITN, IBM and Corporate Television Networks, itself a venture between ITN and the public relations company Burson Marsteller. The service will give companies the chance to run their own television channels.

Gary Mitchell, director of programmes at CTN, says the CBI showed a lot of interest, and he is keen to recruit partners from its ranks to pilot Desktop News. 'Everyone in the broadcasting world is talking about video on demand. Well, we can do it.'

Bob Kaltenborn, IBM business development manager for Desktop News, says the service goes a long way to making sense of broadcast multimedia. 'For multimedia to take off - and for IBM to make any money out of it - it has to become part of the standard desktop tool set.'

Desktop News does this by turning broadcast television into data. 'That's the only way to do it. You can look at what you like on Desktop News, because you are manipulating the data. And it has happened in the UK first,' Mr Kaltenborn says.

'The technologies that deliver television straight to the desktop are a mix of the commonplace and the unique. What's important is that we have integrated a long list of components into a coherent architecture.'

Desktop News stories start like any other ITN pieces. News arrives at ITN by satellite, by microwave link or by hand, brought in by reporters and camera crews. The news video is then edited for Desktop News by a special team.

The video, sound and text are digitised and compressed using an IBM application called News Builder, which gives a compression ratio of 200:1 and VHS quality on playback.

The digitised video is distributed by IBM's IN SatConnect service. It is transmitted from ITN to IBM's Warwick research centre by IBM's own network and from here it is beamed to the Eutelsat II satellite. IN SatConnect includes data encoding and encryption.

To receive the news, a subscriber need a satellite dish cabled to a decoder. Once the data is unscrambled, it is fed into the local area network connecting the personal computers in the building.

The crucial element in this system is the satellite technology, Mr Kaltenborn says. 'We have to move huge amounts of data - 5 to 10 megabytes per minute. You could do it down a fibre optic line, but you would have to send it directly to each user. We can broadcast it to them all at once.'

On the viewer's personal computer, Desktop News is accessed via a screen icon. Beneath the icon is a list of news headlines. When one of these is selected, the video is played in a postcard-sized window while the related text scrolls down the side. Above is a set of control icons for pause and playback.

ITN, IBM and CTN began to explore desktop television a year ago, and already they are beginning to subvert broadcasting conventions.

First, their relationship is counter-intuitive. IBM is the broadcaster and ITN is its production company. Secondly, Desktop News changes the relationship between broadcaster and viewer. It has neither transmission time nor running order. It may carry stories before formal news broadcasts, or stories that are not broadcast. Its viewers are not wholly passive. They can search the system, including a one-week archive, for stories they want to watch.

ITN's wider interest in Desktop News is that it offers an alternative channel. 'ITN is limited by its ability to get on to the network and by the network's ability to deliver the audience. This may give us another way to reach the viewer,' Mr Mitchell says.

Desktop News is on trial in 16 IBM sites across Europe. Now Mr Mitchell is looking for corporate partners to install a pilot service. How will they use it? That's for the pilots to discover, Mr Mitchell says.

Although he has no proof, Mr Mitchell is confident there is an appetite for news on demand, and he is sure of the seductiveness of Desktop News. But he also wants to prove the technology. 'We chose news first because it's ITN's business. But the character of news - its potency, its timeliness - helps to show that the system works.'

CTN will use the same infrastructure to develop a generic Desktop Television service. This will allow companies to tailor the system and build their own television channels for targeted audiences. These may be customers, dealers or employees. The service could carry training programmes, point-of- sale product information or pep talks from the managing director - and again Mr Mitchell is looking for pilot partners.

(Photograph omitted)

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