The BBC'S 24-hour news channel is attracting more viewers than its satellite rival Sky News for the first time.
The viewing figures will come as relief to Greg Dyke, the corporation's director general, who has had to defend the channel against claims that it was seen by few people and was duplicating a service available commercially. Mr Dyke, like his predecessor John Birt who set up News 24, has always maintained that the BBC and its correspondents offered a unique and independent insight into world events.
News 24 came into its own on and after 11 September when its regular presenters such as Gavin Esler and Carrie Gracie, and its network of foreign correspondents, became much more widely known and also provided coverage for the main terrestrial news bulletins. As viewers in multichannel homes sampled the digital channel, specialist News 24 programmes such as Hard Talk – in which the presenter Tim Sebastian interviews leading figures – also began to win a new audience.
Until recently the channel was still trailing Sky in terms of viewer numbers. But yesterday the latest British Audience Research Bureau (Barb) survey showed that News 24 had overtaken Sky News as the most-watched news channel in multichannel homes.
During April and May, a total of 3.8 million viewers tuned into the BBC news channel each week, compared to 3.7 million for Sky News. The average monthly "reach" for News 24 was 7.4 million in April and 7.7 million in May, compared to Sky News's 7.2 million and 7.3 million.
Roger Mosey, head of BBC Television News, described the figures as a "massive endorsement" for the channel. "No other channel can match the quality, range and depth of our output and viewers are turning to News 24 in increasing numbers," he said.
The Barb figures represent viewers to digital satellite, digital terrestrial and cable and do not include viewers who watch News 24 output on BBC1 or BBC2.
Nick Pollard, head of Sky News, said: "If you look back at last week, or last month or last year Sky News has consistently been ahead in terms of share of viewers. The reason the BBC has slightly higher raw figures is because they have a wider distribution on digital terrestrial as opposed to cable and satellite. They simply have more homes able to view them ... The quality of our output is shown by the fact that Sky News has won all the major TV awards over the past two years."