Media: Switched on to cheap TV - The owners of the Daily Mail are getting into cable, and Robo-reporters are their secret weapon

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The Independent Online
IF YOU are looking for a symbol of the rapid way in which Britain's media is changing - with cable programming forging ahead - then look no further than Channel 4's former headquarters, in Charlotte Street, London.

A new Channel One logo beams from the foyer of the building where once Michael Grade was king. Inside it becomes quite clear that 60 Charlotte Street has become the focus of Associated Newspapers' pounds 40m ambitions (the money will be spent over three years) to break into television, and escape cross-media restrictions.

While Rupert Murdoch went overground in 1989 with Sky and the Astra satellite, his rival Lord Rothermere is going ambitiously underground, via cable.

It is a path also chosen by Mirror Group Newspapers, which has unveiled its plans for Live Television, a national 'info-tainment' cable service and a potential link- up with Scottish Television. Reuters announced last month that it plans to start a business news service for cable subscribers. Other financial news gatherers have similar plans.

Julian Aston, managing director of Channel One, says it is just the start: Associated Newspapers is holding talks with two other TV channels to see if they can be launched in the UK and accommodated in the Charlotte Street building. Channel One, which will begin broadcasts on 30 November, is supplying London's five main cable franchise operators (grouped together in an alliance called Interconnect) and their 285,000 subscribers with a 24-hour 'electronic newspaper'. The London area is the most heavily cabled in the country, with 40 per cent of the UK cable network.

Interconnect pools together all but one of the 22 franchises covering Greater London (only Westminster Cable, owned by BT, is outside the net), producing a potentially attractive, though currently tiny (in television terms) audience.

Channel One is modelling some formats on New York One, a lively city cable network, but it aims to have a conventional feel - as befits the owners of the Daily Mail and the London Evening Standard.

Following the New York lead, the network has divided the city into five zones to provide precise localised weather reports. Whether it helps to know that central London is, for example, one degree hotter than south London on any particular day remains to be seen.

One tangible sign of the news service is the presence of Michael Rosenblum, founder of Video News International, who is providing training in low-cost television journalism techniques for low-budget channels. Highly mobile young reporters will operate lightweight Sony cameras and edit the material on return to the office.

Some 30 journalists have been recruited and are undergoing the month-long training course. They will be the foot soldiers for the venture, receiving an average salary of about pounds 25,000.

The programming for Interconnect is being masterminded by Nick Pollard, a former ITN executive and editor of News at Ten, aided by Peter Wallace, another former ITN man, Peter as head of news. Barbara Gibbon, a former TV-am features editor who has joined Channel One in a similar capacity, says that her former boss Bruce Gyngell would understand the new climate.

The best transition is made by those who worked in radio or print and do not arrive with preconceived ideas about the old ways pf making television programmes.

Ms Gibbon plays a video report on the production of plastic mannequins made by the recruit Paul Lewis. We then watch a report about a wheelchair fashion show by Rachel Ellison, a former Mail on Sunday researcher and ex- freelancer. 'I hadn't touched a camera until two weeks ago,' Rachel says.

Jon Davey, head of cable at the Independent Television Commission, says: 'Cable programming has become an incredibly active field. Few of us would have thought a couple of years ago that cable systems might have capacity problems.'

He points out that cable and satellite operators benefit from a virtual free market. A simple licence is all that is required and can only 5be refused under Section 6 of the Broadcasting Act, which sets out basic protection of taste and decency. Cable is also a cheaper option - the annual rent for an Astra satellite transponder is pounds 5m.

It is also an alternative method of reaching British homes, without being part of the Sky multi- package deal, where recent newcomers to the UK such as Nickleodeon or QVC, the shopping channel, have ceded equity to Mr Murdoch. It also means not being dependent on Sky's subscription management system, the gateway to paid satellite services.

Only 707,000 UK homes have cable, though it is expected to rise to one million by Christmas. In comparison, there are three million homes with satellite, and Sky has embarked on an pounds 18m marketing campaign to add another million subscribers by Christmas.

All of this underlines Associated Newspapers' tough fight ahead. It owns the venture outright and will be paid a small carriage fee by the cable operators, but, inititially, it is likely to raise only small sums from advertising and sponsorship.

Mr Aston accepts that at first rewards will be small, with profits some four to five years away. 'We wouldn't be doing this if Lord Rothermere hadn't given this the strongest possible sanction. He sees it as a step on the superhighway.'

Nor is it clear where the synergy between print and television will actually come from. Channel One hopes to have assistance from the well-oiled news machines of the group's highly competitive newspapers. The promotion tape features, for example, several top Daily Mail writers and their potential programme slots - for example, Baz on the Raz with Baz Bamigboye, the paper's personable show-business writer. Mr Bamigboye, however, knew nothing about the programme.

The next part of the plan will be to extend the London formats to Newcastle, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Birmingham (hence a flurry of activity to scrutinise whether Live TV trespasses on Channel One's programme plans).

Mr Aston says Channel One will be supplying a core service to these areas - composed of general magazine, entertainment and show business features - after Easter. He is still working out how to add the local news. For all the ambitions of local newspapers to enter into the revolution, he favours partnerships with major news agencies because they would not be tempted to hold stories back. Old rivalries die hard.

(Photographs omitted)