Media: There's a lot more on offer, but do we want it?

BBC News 24 will be the corporation's first new BBC channel since the launch of BBC2 33 years ago. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, explains what is on offer, how to receive it and why the BBC thinks we will want it.
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The Independent Online
BBC News 24 will be a TV channel ahead of its time when it launches next Sunday.

It was planned to launch this year by the corporation so that it could broadcast on digital television. But News 24 is here and almost ready, and digital television is still at least a year away. For news junkies this means they have a choice about whether to invest now in getting cabled up or wait until digital arrives.

The service should be available in all of the country's main conurbations because the six biggest cable operators have decided to carry the service. This is not generosity of spirit on their part.

News 24 is a licence-fee funded channel and as such is being offered free to those with cable. Sky's news service costs the operators to carry so they charge that to their customers. With the BBC they can give their customers something for nothing.

In all, when it launches, BBC News 24 should be available in around 3 million existing cable homes.

Before you decide if you wish to stump up around pounds 13 a month for a cable subscription that includes News 24, you will be able to watch it free every night on BBC1. Once BBC 1 closes down every night it will link up with News 24 throughout the night. The majority of people will see News 24 during the day when they eventually convert to digital terrestrial television.

Currently we watch television on analogue frequencies which will be switched off some time in the first 10 years of the next century. By then most homes should have bought a digital decoder that will cost around pounds 300 for their existing televisions, or a new generation television that can receive digital signals.

News 24 will then be the main component of the BBC's free digital offering.

At some point in the next year the BBC is hopeful that it will secure a transponder on a satellite so that it can beam News 24 into homes with satellite dishes.

All this effort is for a rolling news service that will update weather, sport and headlines every 15 minutes.

It will be hosted by a selection of former BBC reporters, like Gavin Eslar, who have been trying out their in-studio presentation skills during the summer on Newsnight.

At present the audience for a rolling news service is minute. Sky News gets an 0.9 per cent share of viewing in homes with satellite dishes and, until the Louise Woodward trial, its biggest audiences were around 70,000 viewers.

The BBC is banking on the fact that when digital television arrives people will no longer wish to have their news served up to them at times which suit the broadcasters.

Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news, acknowledges that the bulk of viewers and listeners will continue for some time to get their news from the established strands such as the Nine O'Clock News.

"But an increasing proportion will consume news when they want it, be it through a 24 hour news channel or on the Internet," he said.