LONDON — Americans are far more interested in the Middle West than the Middle East.
At least you could get that impression from watching TV news in the United States. Are we that xenophobic? Parochial? Does the TV coverage fit the interest? Or is it only that our big three networks--given a scant 22 minutes a night for news--haven't time for international news beyond sporadic fits and jerks usually keyed to violent conflict?
No matter. Something new--and revolutionary--may be near. The Brits are coming. Get ready for "BBC World News."
Sometime before 1990, the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), hopes to launch a half-hour daily news program beamed globally in English to nations where there are buyers for the ambitious service. In other words, viewers in Bombay, Manila, Buenos Aires and Los Angeles could be watching the same news program and expanding their horizons. Nations where English isn't widely spoken could use subtitles or dub in other languages.
"There's been some interest in the United States," said George Carey, a BBC documentary executive who is working double duty developing "BBC World News." He refused to say exactly who was interested, but hinted that it might be a cable system.
Carey has already made two "BBC World News" pilots. The program would be fed from London at 9 or 10 a.m. Pacific time and use BBC-TV facilities when they're normally not used. But it would operate under the banner of BBC radio's highly regarded external services division (about the only part of the BBC not under attack in Britain), whose 25 to 30 foreign correspondents plus stringers would be trained for TV. "That's a network no one could touch," Carey said.
Exporting news programs is not a new concept, thanks to the advent of satellite technology.
America's Cable News Network has been available in thousands of European hotel rooms for some time (and next will be available to cable systems in a few countries), and NBC is now offering European hotels some of its own news programs under the title of Anglovision. Britain's ITV, the BBC's commercial competitor, will soon begin its own Eurovision and the international Visnews has long been mulling its own multilingual European news network.
What sets "BBC World News" apart from the others, though, is its wider worldwide distribution and--even more significant--its perspective.
It would have no single national perspective. It would be a news without a country, tailored to no specific market, beaming to the United States, for example, news stories likely clashing with the perceptions on ABC, CBS and NBC.
"There's more to the world than 25 or so minutes of broadcasting that's primarily geared to one audience," Carey said.
Perhaps the day's top story on U.S. TV would be relegated to the end of "BBC World News"--if it is included at all. "On some days, there are stories like Chernobyl (the Soviet nuclear plant accident) and Reykjavik (the summit between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev) that would always be our lead," Carey said, "but not necessarily something like the United States elections."
Some people are probably already grimacing.
Giving universal-minded "BBC World News," a U.S. stage may sound positively unpatriotic to those--specifically critics of "The Africans" on PBS--convinced that Americans need shielding from ideas that challenge their views. Yet "BBC World News" could at once help plug American TV's international news gap and expand our global outlook.
"People ought to be allowed to know what's going on in the world," said Carey, who believes that American networks do a good job considering the time restrictions placed on them. "There's nothing sinister about it; they're not allowed to do more because of commercial considerations."
That's why U.S.-based British TV reporter Martin Bell's nightmare would be having a job as a foreign correspondent for ABC, CBS or NBC. "It's hard to get anything on the air in the United States," he said recently from Washington.
That's because American TV usually defines the world in crises. No crisis, no coverage. No carnage, no footage. "The networks swamp a foreign story with five or six crews," Bell said. "Then when the story dies down, they forget about it."
Hence, in TV terms, that country or region again ceases to exist--until the next explosion.
Bell has spent nine years in the United States as chief Washington correspondent for the BBC, which along with ITV, offers British viewers far more international news than Americans get from Peter Jennings, Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw.
"The British are an old imperial power, so we have a lot of interest in places like Africa, and the BBC wants stuff all the time," Bell said. "You have wonderfully protective oceans on either side of you."
Will "BBC World News" help hurdle the water barrier?
Although the BBC's Carey sounds confident, there's no guarantee his international newscast will ever move from drawing board to TV screen. Its problems are enormous: finding an audience, obtaining news footage rights and solving union and financial problems, for example. The idea is a good one, though, and here's one vote for "BBC World News" sight unseen.