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Culture: On the air: TV news most of us can't watch

The BBC last night broke Sky's monopoly in round-the-clock TV news when it launched News 24. Rob Brown, Media Editor, went to Television Centre to see the start of a service few licence-payers were able to share.

Nothing, it seems, at the future-obsessed BBC these days, can stop an idea whose time hasn't quite come yet. And so last night the corporation launched a 24-hour rolling television news service which can be seen at this stage by just two small categories of viewers - cable subscribers and insomniacs.

The latter - who will presumably form a sizeable slice of the tiny audience which the service will attract when it is transmitted on BBC 1 in the small hours of the morning - didn't get to see Gavin Esler and Sarah Montague (poached from Sky News) present the first bulletin at 6pm yesterday.

The early evening start meant that only cable subscribers got to witness this much-hyped milestone in British broadcasting history.

That didn't stop Mr Esler getting excited about the enterprise. "This isn't going to be your grandfather's BBC," the corporation's former North America correspondent enthused in a promo video which prefaced the first bulletin. "It will be as authoritative as it was in granddad's day, but it's not going to be stuffy... it might even be fun."

Just to prove this Mr Esler shed his jacket and sported a trendy blue shirt with an equally trendy silver and blue striped tie for what is being billed as the "Now 0'Clock News."

Actually News 24 kicked off in an incredibly low-key fashion at 5.30pm with a brief history of broadcast news in Britain from cinema newsreels to the advent of satellite. Some cable subscribers might have mistaken it for the History Channel.

But the history lesson was, mercifully, limited to less than a quarter of an hour. From the outset BBC bosses were obviously determined to live up to their pre-launch promise - "you'll never be more than 15 minutes from the headlines on News 24".

And that won't always just apply to cable subscribers and insomniacs, according to Jenny Abramsky, the BBC's director of continuous news. The woman who spearheaded the launch of Radio Five Live a few years back confidently forecast yesterday that News 24 would also slowly weave its way into the fabric of British life.

"It will take time for some people to find News 24, but they will," she said. "It will never have huge audiences, but over a week it could have quite significant reach."

She defended the use of a substantial sum of licence-payers' money - News 24 will cost pounds 30m to start up and run in the first year alone - for the service which few licence holders will be able to see for some time. "News is a central part of the BBC's public service remit and in the multi- channel home the provision of 24-hour news is part of that remit," she said.

She cited the record audiences tuning into Sky News for the Louise Woodward trial as evidence of the growing need for continuous news. There was a live link last night from outside the Boston courthouse on News 24. There was also one from Ben Brown in Aman about the Middle East crisis. And there are bound to be many, many more in the weeks and months and years ahead. News 24 may not have many viewers yet, but it will always have a hell of a lot of air time to fill.