BBC News 24

The BBC's news channel, then known as BBC News 24, launched on 9th November 1997. However the notion of rolling news at the BBC goes back a few years before that. During the Gulf War of 1991, the BBC ran a continuous news service (nicknamed 'Scud FM') on Radio 4's FM frequencies, with regular programming continuing on long wave. This gave the BBC an appetite for a permanent rolling news channel - however the idea for it to utilise Radio 4's long wave frequency was quickly scuppered by the network's very vocal listenership.

Instead the service found its way onto Radio 5's frequencies and was combined with the sport already broadcast on that network to form Radio 5 Live - which turned out to be a channel for topical debate and discussion, but can hardly be described as 'rolling news'.

However, even before the launch of 5 Live, the BBC was having ideas about launching a continuous news network on television, and the 1993 revamp of the BBC's four main news programmes (Breakfast/One/Six/Nine O'Clock News) with a new uniform appearance, was seen as a step towards this. By 1996, a rolling news network was one of several channels proposed by the BBC to spearhead their move into digital television (read more about that here). That was still two years away, however, and the BBC was seemingly impatient to launch the channel - so much so, that when it appeared in November 1997, it was only available in around two million homes with analogue cable television.

Sky News had already been established in the UK since 1989, but for viewers without satellite television, their first taste of rolling news would come in the early hours of 31st August 1997, when the BBC's international news service, BBC World, was simulcast on BBC1 in order to provide coverage of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. When BBC News 24 launched a couple of months later, even though the full service could only be seen by a small proportion of the population, it would reach a much wider potential audience by being broadcast overnight on BBC1 - spelling the end of the traditional closedown with the national anthem.

BBC News 24 got going at 5.30pm on Sunday 9th November 1997, with the station's colourful title sequence made up of a series of fictional flags (this was inspired by the graphics that had been in use by BBC World for several years, and that channel's appearance had recently been revamped in a similar style). The channel then broadcast a 'Preface' looking back over decades of BBC News output, before the flags were shown again and the channel's first news bulletin was broadcast at 6pm.

The launch presenters were Gavin Esler and Sarah Montague, and straight away it was clear that News 24 was going to present a very different style of news presentation to what viewers were used to on BBC1 and BBC2. The channel was intended to widen the audience for BBC News, aiming to attract younger viewers, in much the same way that Radio 5 Live had brought a younger audience to radio news.

And so BBC News 24 brought a more relaxed approach, with Esler and the other male presenters appearing in their shirt sleeves. The channel didn't use a studio as such, instead being presented from within a part of the BBC newsroom, and the colourful flag symbols that appeared in the title sequence were replicated on the walls behind the presenters.

This style of presentation was in stark contrast to the traditional bulletins on BBC1, which now seemed stuffy and dated in comparison, with their cold blue sets and pompous orchestral theme tunes. However it didn't go down well with some, with one insider describing the set as looking like a 'car crash in a shower'.

The opening of BBC News 24 was accompanied by the launch of BBC News Online - here is one new service reporting on the launch of the other.

The channel took on a raft of new presenters, many of whom were new to a national audience, including Chris Eakin, Maxine Mawhinney and Ben Geoghegan. In time, some more familiar presenters would come to the channel, such as Philip Hayton, Peter Sissons and Chris Lowe. Radio 5 Live's Peter Allen presented a four hour programme on Sunday afternoons, while perhaps most surprising among the launch presenters was Gideon Coe, now better known as a presenter on BBC 6 Music.

Christopher Price presented the late night slot which mixed hard news with showbiz gossip. He later described it as 'like conducting a slow motion car crash'. Before long, the entertainment news was hived off into its own slot, Zero 30 (named after its 12.30am timeslot). In 2000 the show was dropped by News 24, but was immediately picked up by BBC Choice where it became Liquid News (more here). News 24 even aired its own weekly review edition of Liquid News for a while.

News 24 featured a number of other self-contained programmes, usually aired in the so-called 'back half hours'. Some of these originated on BBC World, and a few are still running today, such as the weekly debate Dateline London and the one-to-one interview series HARDtalk. Other programmes included a showcase for the BBC's long-serving correspondent John Simpson in Simpson's World, Chronicles, which delved into the BBC News archive, the self-explanatory Sir Robin Day's Book Review, and programmes covering topics such as food and science. There was even a weekly programme for children, Newsround 24, though it's hard to imagine that many of its target audience would have found their way to a rolling news channel on a Sunday afternoon!

Weather was also an important part of the new channel, and with forecasts every 30 minutes, many new presenters were recruited, such as Daniel Corbett who was the first to be seen on News 24 and would go on to appear on the main channels. The forecasts retained the maps and symbols as seen on BBC1 and BBC2, but the colour scheme was entirely different, with the landmasses coloured orange and the sea dark blue! The colours reverted to the more familiar green and light blue in 1999.

At the beginning, BBC News 24 broadcast its own output almost all the way through the day, with just a few programmes such as Europe Direct that also appeared on BBC World. However at the end of March 1998, the overnight news service was merged with that of BBC World, which gave a more international flavour to the news agenda. Ironically, it was at that time of day that News 24 was probably receiving its highest viewership, via the simulcast with BBC1.

The early days of News 24 were beset with technical problems, not that it would have mattered too much since so few people were watching. However upon the launch of digital television in the autumn of 1998, with Sky Digital starting on 1st October and then the terrestrial service OnDigital following on 15th November, the potential audience for News 24 began to widen.

It was around this time that a few changes were made to the channel, most notably a change of home when it moved into the newly-built News Centre at BBC Television Centre. The set was once again built in office space, rather than being in a dedicated studio, and became known as 'N8'. Opposite the main desk was a more informal 'soft area' with a sofa, from where programmes such as Zero 30 and Weekend 24 (the Saturday breakfast slot which also aired on BBC2) would be presented. Meanwhile, BBC World moved to News 24's previous home, now known as 'N9'.

The channel also began a sustaining service for the digital version of BBC1 in England where, for technical reasons, regional opt-outs were not yet available, and so at 6.30pm, UK Today was broadcast each weeknight on both BBC News 24 and BBC1 digital, with a selection of stories taken from regional news programmes across the UK.

On 25th October 1999, after just under two years on air, BBC News 24 received its first major revamp, taking on a similar style to that introduced on BBC1's bulletins the previous May. Out went the colourful flags, and in came a preponderance of red and beige (officially 'ivory'). The new presentation style was intended to be more formal, following criticisms of News 24's original look, and the male presenters had to put their suits back on. Even the former 'soft area' was no longer so soft, with the sofa replaced by chairs and a desk. The overall effect was unfortunately to make the channel appear more boring and stuffy than it had before.

There was one bright spot, however, for presentation fans - a countdown, which would act as a filler to the top of each hour to ensure that the news started at exactly the right time. Previously, this had consisted of a flag wafting in the breeze, but now contained a numerical element, counting down the seconds, accompanied by an excellent theme composed by David Lowe. The countdown even reached a kind of cult status online, and the holy grail was to catch the entire 90 second sequence, though this would rarely, if ever, be seen on the channel itself. It would occasionally be seen, however, on BBC1, at the crossover point to News 24. Unfortunately the most I ever saw was 89 seconds!

In the early 2000s, with digital television still young, BBC News 24 was still reaching a relatively small audience. However it came into its own during major breaking news, and would reach a much higher audience by being simulcast on BBC1, notably during the New York attacks in September 2001. These kinds of simulcasts during major news stories continue to this day.

One of the most memorable events during this period, as far as presentation enthusiasts are concerned, came in June 2000, when BBC Television Centre was hit by a major power failure which forced News 24 off air, leading to BBC World airing in its place. We have a page dedicated to the 2000 power cut here. It was during this evening that BBC World's technology series Click Online received its first UK airing. Soon afterwards, it emerged again on News 24 as a summer filler, and by 2003, it had proved popular enough to gain a regular year-round slot on the channel, and still airs today under the shortened title Click.

In October 2000, the channel lost a chunk of its own airtime, when the duplication of BBC1 and BBC News 24 both producing their own breakfast news programmes ended, and Breakfast launched, airing on both channels, presented by Sophie Raworth and Jeremy Bowen. Click here for more on breakfast television at the Beeb.

Over the next few years there were a number of other presentation changes to the channel, such as an updated set design, and a revised countdown in January 2003 which lost the graphical element in favour of scenes of everyday life in the UK.

In December 2002 a government report was published into News 24's performance. The Lambert Report endorsed the decision to launch the channel, and broadly praised its output. However it said the service was not as good as it could be, and must become more distinct from rivals, with a 'clearer sense of direction'. It spoke of the need for better coverage of news from the UK regions, and 'sharper' business news.

As a result, a new look was unveiled almost exactly a year later. The relaunch had been planned for 1st December 2003, but was scuppered by another power cut at the BBC! It finally launched a week later, when a new, brighter and snazzier set was introduced. The changes also saw presenters standing up for the first time, and there was a raft of new on-screen graphics, such as the so-called 'tower' which contained the channel name with the clock underneath. This would soon be joined by a continuous ticker rolling across the bottom of the screen.

There was the ending of more duplication in 2006, when the One O'Clock News, and then the Six and Ten O'Clock News began to air simultaneously on News 24. In 2007 the tower was demolished and a tidier set of graphics were introduced, while the title sequence was also revamped a few times during the mid-2000s. By now, the countdowns showed correspondents gathering news around the world, beaming it back to BBC Television Centre. The music, which had since been remixed a few times, had reached such cult status that the BBC was inviting viewers to produce their own remixes, which would be aired on the channel on Fridays!

On 21st April 2008, a series of cutbacks meant some major changes to the rolling news channel - including its name. As part of a plan to bring all domestic news output under the 'BBC News' brand, the '24' was dropped from the name and the channel would henceforth be known simply as 'BBC News' - though in practice this meant it would normally be referred to as the 'BBC News channel'.

It would now share the studio used by the BBC1 bulletins, known as studio N6. This was in order that the (also renamed) BBC World News could move to News 24's old home, and World's old home (where News 24 started) could be mothballed. It was the first time the channel would be presented without a real newsroom as the backdrop, though a faux 'newsroom' background appeared on the screens behind the presenters.

This change in studios was only ever intended as a stop-gap, however, as the new BBC News centre was under construction in New Broadcasting House in central London. After many delays, the news operation moved to its new headquarters on 18th March 2013. The BBC News channel continued to use the same set as the bulletins on BBC1, but this was now back to being placed within the hubbub of the newsroom, helping the channel to feel more 'alive' again after five years stuck in a shoebox-like studio. It also led to a surreal moment when Her Majesty the Queen was seen behind the presenters when she arrived to officially open the new building.

However, by this time, the BBC was being forced to make ever more cutbacks to services right across the corporation, and the BBC News channel has perhaps been seen as an easy target for cuts. There has been a gradual move from double to single-headed presentation, and many more simulcasts have been introduced with other channels in order to save money, such as the Victoria Derbyshire programme, which also airs on BBC2, and there is now a repeat of Newsnight immediately following the BBC2 broadcast. A number of additional daily simulcasts with the BBC World News channel have also been introduced, such as Business Live, Beyond 100 Days and Outside Source. Talk of a full merger with BBC World News has, however, been dismissed. Even so, by 2017, the channel's own output had incredibly been reduced to less than eight hours a day, a far cry from the 24 hours it enjoyed in 1997!

The channel has had its lighter moments, making the headlines itself in 2006 when Guy Goma, who was waiting in the BBC reception area, was mistaken for technology expert Guy Kewney and was unwittingly put live on air to be interviewed about a court case involving Apple Computers. There was also the 'BBC News dancer', Corville Cuffy, who became an internet sensation after he was filmed bopping to the countdown theme. And who can forget Simon McCoy reading the headlines whilst holding a wodge of paper?

In contrast to how channel the ignored its tenth birthday, the channel celebrated its twentieth anniversary by playing out some of the old countdowns and flags sequences, bringing back past presenters and interviewing Lord Hall, now director general of the BBC, but who in 1997 was the head of BBC News who championed the launch of the channel.

Though he gave an upbeat assessment of the channel's prospects, with the gradual chipping away of the service, along with the myriad ways people are able to catch up with the news nowadays - why wait for the stories you're interested in to come round on a rolling news channel when you can follow it straight away, any time you like online? - one has to wonder if the channel will still exist at all in another twenty years' time - or even ten?


Video

From our YouTube channel, some clips of BBC News 24 in 1999, from before and after the October revamp.


Text copyright © Robert Williams, images and video copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation