ANAHEIM — The BBC's role in the 21st Century will be determined by the success of its new World Service Television venture, the British network's chief executive said Wednesday.
Sir Michael Checkland, director general of the British Broadcasting Corp., said the network that is best known to global audiences through shortwave radio intends to run its television news programs on every continent, including North America, by the end of 1993.
"It's the most significant thing that we're doing at the moment, far more significant than what we're doing (in British domestic programming)," Checkland said in an interview after announcing that BBC television service to Africa was to begin this week. "It's inconceivable that you could think of the BBC doing only shortwave radio (internationally) in the year 2000."
Checkland described the television venture, which began last year with service to some nations in continental Europe, Asia and the Middle East, as an outgrowth of the BBC World Service. The 60-year-old shortwave radio network currently reaches an estimated 120 million listeners worldwide, many of whom consider the London-based service more reliable than their own national media.
But within the broadcast industry, the BBC venture is being characterized as a challenge to Cable News Network, which has been aggressively seeking foreign outlets for its news broadcasts. The Atlanta-based CNN saw its international profile soar with its dramatic coverage of the Persian Gulf War, the fall of the Soviet bloc and other events of interest to global audiences.
Last week, CNN expanded its potential viewership in Europe from 14 million to 22 million via a transponder on the Astra 1b satellite. As if to nudge the BBC, which dominates broadcasting within the United Kingdom, the move brought CNN to some 3 million homes in Britain.
Other television broadcasters, including Capital Cities/ABC and Rupert Murdoch, owner of the Fox network in the United States and Britain's Sky Channel, are said to be considering expanding into the world-news market but have yet to announce any plans.
Financially, the BBC television venture resembles the CNN approach more than it does its own domestic broadcasting or its short-wave radio network. BBC domestic television--seen on two of the country's four TV channels--carries no commercials and is supported instead by a $125 annual fee paid by each person who owns a television. Also non-commercial, BBC World Service radio broadcasts in 38 languages and is underwritten by the British government.
World Service Television, however, broadcasts in English only and receives no public subsidy. It is carried through a variety of arrangements with local broadcasters; in continental Europe, the news travels over cable channels that also carry BBC entertainment programs. Asian and African audiences receive the news reports through satellite transmissions, while in Bahrain, the service is carried over the national television network.
Like American commercial television, local broadcasters pay the BBC for the right to run the programs, and in turn can expect to recoup costs by selling advertisements or charging license fees. Instead of receiving a 24-hour service on a separate BBC channel, most viewers will see the reports on their local networks, Checkland said. "If you're on a (local) transmitter, you'd see (the announcer say), 'Now over to the BBC World Television News.' "
Checkland said that because the BBC already employs a worldwide corps of correspondents, initial costs for World Service Television have been low, some $17.5 million out of an annual network budget of $3 billion.
Checkland, who was addressing a World Affairs Council of Orange County meeting at the Disneyland Hotel, downplayed any competition with CNN. He praised CNN founder Ted Turner as "the global village's first citizen" and argued that the American and British networks would bring different slants to their coverage.
"CNN's strength is the strength of America," he said. "It's a window for the world on the most powerful and influential country on the planet, as well as a look at the rest of the world through that country's window.
"The BBC's strength is the range and depth of its coverage and its international tradition," he said--a reference to the British network's reputation with foreign audiences for impartiality, something that U.S. broadcasters, such as the government-funded Voice of America, have yet to equal.
A CNN executive, however, bristled Thursday at the suggestion that his network's world service is skewed by an American perspective. "I guess (Checkland) hasn't seen our service recently," said Peter C. Vesey, vice president of CNN International. But Vesey added, "Of course, the BBC's a great news organization and we have the greatest respect for them. Our feeling is that the competition is good for us and good for the BBC," he said.