Free enterprise changes the channel

By , contributor

BRITISH television viewers have been told to expect extensive changes in the range and organization of broadcasting in the next few years as satellite TV is extensively developed and the existing channels are put on a new footing. But the Thatcher government's plans to give viewers wider program choices, and to allow commercial companies to become much more active, are already stirring controversy.

Different ministries disagree on the way ahead for British TV and the opposition Labour Party is preparing to mount a sustained attack on the government's media policies.

At present most viewers can watch the British Broadcasting Corporation's two TV channels, plus two independent commercial channels that operate under the aegis of the Independent Broadcasting Authority. But Home Secretary Douglas Hurd startled both the BBC and the IBA in June by raising questions about their future organization.

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Mr. Hurd suggested that the arrangement under which the BBC is financed by an annual license fee paid by viewers was ``not immortal'' and might give way to a system in which viewers paid for individual BBC programs. (The BBC does not accept commercial advertising.)

In a speech to Conservative members of Parliament, he also questioned whether the IBA, which is a regulatory body, would be necessary once more commercial TV companies, using satellites, entered the field. (Britain's four channels have been easily regulated up to now because they do not use satellite transmissions.)

In short, Hurd has raised serious doubts as to whether the way the BBC has been run for 60 years, and independent television for 30 years, can continue much longer in the face of commercial competition. Rupert Murdoch, the newspaper tycoon, has announced plans to start up to four satellite channels. Another body called British Satellite Broadcasting is also planning to provide subscription channels to British viewers.

In addition, Lord Young, the government's secretary for trade and industry, has proposed that the BBC's and IBA's existing second channels be carried by satellite, and give up their terrestrial wavelengths to fully commercial operators.

This burst of proposals and counterproposals is causing dismay in political and media circles. Robin Corbett, Labour's media spokesman, interprets Hurd's remarks as meaning he is preparing to sell the BBC out to commercial interests.

``Such ideas if carried out would inevitably put the BBC in jeopardy and lead to a fall in program standards,'' Mr. Corbett said.

Filmmaker Sir Richard At-tenborough, who is chairman of Channel 4, the second ITV channel, said, ``The government is simply putting forward various ideas, ill-judged, ill-considered, without consultation. The finest broadcasting operation in the world is being treated as a shuttlecock and being bashed around the court. It is entitled to better treatment.''

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is a committed advocate of expanding the private sector wherever possible, and can be expected to support plans to introduce a large number of commercial TV channels. At some point, however, she will have to step in and remind Hurd and Lord Young that the government must speak with a single voice, not offer differing proposals.

That time will probably come in the autumn, when a government white paper on broadcasting, specifying the measures the government intends to take, is expected.

That will be a signal for Labour to hammer the government's plans. Labour is a strong believer in public service broadcasting and will certainly defend both the BBC and the IBA as guardians of media standards. And the BBC will certainly argue that the license fee has enabled it to maintain its independence and to fund high quality programming that would never have been created under a commercial system.

Mrs. Thatcher, however, has already shown that she has her own ideas on controlling broadcasting. In May she set up a broadcasting standards authority to preview imported programs and remove scenes of excessive sex or violence.

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