Open University to 'sex up' its image

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FOR years, Open University television was associated with bearded professors sporting kipper ties and wild hair explaining complex chemistry theories in the early hours.

But the overnight BBC slot watched by generations of students, insomniacs and shift workers is being phased out as the university concentrates its brain power on more glamorous prime-time TV shows.

For the past 34 years, the Open University has occupied the 2am-6am slot on BBC2, known as The Learning Zone. Since the 1970s, students have used video recorders to fit the nocturnal transmissions into their academic course.

However, two developments have led to the demise of the dawn broadcasts. One is the advent of new technology - increasing numbers of the university's 200,000 students now pursue their studies using the internet and CD-ROMs, a trend which has rendered the overnight TV tutorials less useful.

Secondly, the Milton-Keynes based university also wants to concentrate its expertise on high-profile television shows with high production values away from the parodied world of academics on a sofa with plastic models.

An example of the university's new approach to television - which it dubs "from bedtime to peaktime" - is Coast, a 13-part BBC2 series exploring Britain's coastal communities which can be seen on Fridays and Sundays at 9pm. The show, co-produced by the Open University, has been heavily promoted across BBC1 and BBC2 in peak viewing hours.

Another demonstration of the Open University's involvement in more mainstream television is Rough Science, presented by Kate Humble, which is about to enter its sixth series and enjoys a 7:30pm broadcast slot on BBC2.

The Open University has also been a co-producer on shows such as BBC1's Child of Our Time and made short regional programmes to complement the BBC1 documentary series The British Isles: A Natural History, presented by Alan Titchmarsh.

The Open University wants to step up such high quality, high profile programmes.

Louis De La Foret, a spokesman for the Open University, said: "We did have long-haired, bearded professors with kipper ties demonstrating the intricacies of molecules. Now they are more likely to be on some exotic island, doing the same science but in a more entertaining, illustrative way."

The end of the overnight academic broadcasts on BBC2 was, Mr De La Foret said, "a story of modern technology catching up. You weren't going to be able to have video-taped programmes going forever in the twilight hours".

The Open University insists it isn't leaving tuition all to new technology and stresses it has a number of centres across the country where face-to-face help is available.

The changing style of educational television was signalled last February when Teachers' TV, a 20 million a year specialist channel aimed at Britain's 1.1 million teachers, governors and classroom helpers, went on the air.

Run by Nigel Dacre, a former ITV news editor, the government-funded channel features news-style updates and divides programming into 15-minute segments. It also uses well-known media personalities such as the Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys in some items.