On cars, television, and the nuclear threat in Britain

One of the more surprising news items to emerge with the new year here is that more than one-third of British homes don't have an automobile. On top of that, about one-quarter have no telephone.

Americans and other visitors tend to see Britain as roughly the same as the United States and other industrial countries. Beneath the surface of industry and shops, many families live in their time-honored ways.

Incomes are generally below European levels, and certainly way behind US ones: The same government study that surveyed cars and phones found that the average family here has a weekly income, after taxes, of (STR)137.30, which works out to $11,423 a year. In 1979, less than 5 percent of Americans paying income tax declared an income that small.

A much higher percentage of Britons than Americans live in public housing, paying minimal rents, and often, as the figures show, with minimal conveniences.

Almost 97 percent of homes have a television set, 96 percent have a refrigerator, and 81 percent, a clothes washing machine.

Speaking of television, both BBC and commercial (ITV) officials have begun to worry a little. British TV has a splendid reputation abroad, but here at home, figures show a small drop in TV audiences, the first for many years.

The BBC also found that it had no programs at all in the 1982 top ten. The James Bond film ''The Spy Who Loved Me'' was the only program all year to pull in more than 20 million viewers, and that was on ITV. Second was ''This Is Your Life,'' and third, the local soap opera ''Coronation Street.''

No one seems to have an accepted explanation for the drop. But television is on the verge of mushrooming growth here, with breakfast programs, direct broadcasting from satellites, and cable.

It all means much more choice for British viewers . . . and the prospect of smaller audiences for each of the three established channels here (two BBC and one commercial) as well as for the struggling new (commercial) Channel 4.

What it will do for the quality of British television remains to be seen. So far TV has been considered a public service here and regulated as such. Commercial channels must also abide by the rule that they must serve the community, not just make money. Can this system, which has brought so much outstanding programming, survive?

This raises the controversial issue of what critics condemn as the end of civilization, and supporters welcome with open arms - ''cornflake'' or breakfast TV.

Long popular in the US, Japan, and Australia, morning TV has been unknown here except for coronations, royal weddings, and other major events.

Yet the BBC will end radio's monopoly on British mornings at 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 17 when the familiar face of announcer Frank Bough will flash onto the screen.

The BBC effort will run until 9 a.m., much like the model of US morning TV, with roughly 20-minute segments of news, interviews, and regional slots.

Commercial TV's ''TV-AM'' will start on Feb. 1, running from 6 a.m. to 9:15 a.m.

Both channels want a relaxed program aiming at the style of a popular newspaper rather than the authority of a London Times. Both will have sofas and plants instead of desks. Die-hards deplore the onset of such ''Americanization.''

''It will contribute nothing to cultural or intellectual life,'' says former Times editor William Rees-Mogg. Others say breakfast TV is inevitable . . . and might even be good.

Working against it are two factors: innate British conservatism and the strength of morning radio (and radio as a whole). Besides, only 40 percent of British homes have a second TV set. That means a slow start for breakfast TV, since few families concentrate morning routines around their living rooms. Nonetheless, the BBC hopes to split a total audience of between 5 and 6 million viewers. Commercial officials see a smaller total.

Overshadowing the beginning of 1983 is the nuclear weapons debate here. You can find it all over the country - as I did over the New Year holiday deep in the Thomas Hardy country of rural Dorset in southwest England.

In an immaculate farmhouse kitchen, a mother of three worried out loud at the growth of nuclear weapons on both sides of the Iron Curtain. She was less interested in the details than she was in the trend - and her yearning for peace and sanity is the kind of honest, deep-seated conviction that NATO governments must answer if they want to ensure their own policies.

''It just isn't right for so many weapons to be built,'' she mused. ''We in the West ought to do something. Can't Reagan and Andropov sit down with other leaders around a table and talk? Can't someone do something besides building more bombs and rockets?''

NATO answers the peace protest movement by pointing out the Soviet threat. The people of Dorset know about the Soviet threat, but are more and more worried about their children, their families, their future

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