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Britons turned off by more opportunities to tune in new TV channels

By Alexander MacLeodSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1982



London

British television viewers are being given more programs to choose from . . . but they don't seem to be in any hurry to tune in.

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Take the example of ''Channel 4.'' The first new TV channel in Britain for 18 years, it was launched amid a hoopla of excited publicity. Today, after nearly a month of operation, it appears to be losing rather than gaining viewers, and advertisers are worried.

After claiming 6 percent of the viewing audience in its first week, the new channel is having to battle to keep 5 percent. One executive was reported as saying that one unnamed program had achieved a zero rating among viewers, meaning that fewer than half a million people bothered to watch it.

Press critics have attacked the channel's alleged lack of professionalism and its preference for extended items of apparently limited interest. Early schedules included lengthy segments on women's liberation, the rights of blacks and Asians, and other serious issues. High among its intended drawcards was an hour-long in-depth news bulletin every evening.

Viewers responded unenthusiastically. They seemed instead to prefer TV screenings of old movies and light entertainment.

All of which has prompted other program makers to think again about a variety of other new TV projects about to be launched.

Coming up early in the new year will be Britain's first exposure to breakfast television - to be launched by commercial television. The project is headed by former Ambassador to Washington Peter Jay. His station will be staffed by some of the most famous TV performers in Britain, including interviewer-comedian David Frost and the country's first woman newscaster, Angela Rippon.

But after the Channel 4 slump, Mr. Jay is getting some hard questions from potential advertisers.

The BBC is also planning its own noncommercial breakfast program - and insisting that it is fairly confident that it can gain and retain a sizable breakfast audience.

Britons' apathetic reception of Channel 4 has another group worried: cable TV companies. An official report has recommended early introduction of cable television, but cable companies planning to enter what they hoped would be a lucrative field now are expressing some concern.

Their main fear is that British audiences are unusually settled in their habits. A TV license in Britain costs about $100. For that sum, viewers can watch two BBC noncommercial channels and now two commercial channels as well. Access to cable will cost much more, and there are growing doubts as to whether Britons will be willing to finance such home entertainment when they seem reasonably satisfied with the present range of choice.

Similarly, a slackening off is now expected in the BBC's enthusiasm for TV reception direct from orbiting satellites. The advent of the commercial Channel 4, plus the promise of breakfast TV and expectations that cable television would be popular, had previously led the BBC to plan for satellite reception before the end of the decade.