THE British are wise to something about television that Americans have been conditioned to forget. We've let the commercial sector capture TV and turn it into a commodity, narcotizing our minds with it like angel dust.
Unlike the United States, Britain has strenuously debated the purpose of broadcasting. It has understood that TV has great power -- the power to amuse, yes, but also to serve the better angels of our nature and the national interest. We need to learn what they know.
Out of Britain's brisk public discourse has come a two-tier system -- one dedicated to programs for profit, the other to the public mind. On any given night, roughly half the sets are tuned to the commercial networks -- the mass appeal Independent Television (ITV), the tonier Channel Four, and Rupert Murdoch's Fox-like Sky satellite system. The other half is viewing the two noncommercial, public TV channels of the BBC, the British Broadcasting Corporation, the watchdog of the national culture that nurtures British identity and promotes it to the world.
The political establishment, forever restive over the BBC's power, persistently resorts to intimidation ''to get it under control.'' ''The Beeb'' gives a bit now and again, but remains, irresistibly, a national treasure and a global force. Our own underfunded, rightist-hounded public broadcasting system should be so lucky.
Long after the fading of empire, great nations wage war on the playing field of the ''teleculture.'' Britain's stakes are largely vested in the BBC, which keeps Britannia ruling the waves -- the airwaves. Though Britain's territorial holdings have shrunk, the sun never sets on the BBC. The diversity and quality of its programs are savored worldwide -- from Britcoms to high culture, documentaries to grand adaptations of Britain's literary treasures, ''Monte Python'' to ''Martin Chuzzlewit,'' ''Are You Being Served?'' to ''Middlemarch.''
Without BBC fare to fill out its needs, the programmers at PBS and the foreign news editors at NPR would be sorely stretched. In 1993 and 1994, the BBC sold 11,000 hours of programs to foreign broadcasters.
The radio news broadcasts of the BBC World Service are heard in 39 languages in virtually every country on earth, including this one. They are produced by the largest news organization in the world. Credibility is the hallmark of the Beeb's global news reports -- except with the party in power in Whitehall in times of crisis.
The TV extension of the BBC World Service is now taking on CNN International worldwide and battling to win a place on American cable.
The mortar of the BBC was mixed in the '20s by an unlikely founding general manager, austere Scottish civil engineer John Reith, motivated by a deeply religious purpose and a vision about radio. He saw it as an immense invention that would be the servant of British high culture, education, and good taste -- a purpose later amended to embrace amusement programs of broader appeal. ''As we conceive it,'' he said, ''our responsibility is to carry into the greatest possible number of homes everything that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavor, or achievement.'' Reith believed that giving an audience what it wanted was absurd, since it really didn't know. Mass tastes had to be informed and improved: ''He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he himself will then satisfy.''
Reith's BBC was designed as an independent voice of the government, well insulated from government. He resisted a propaganda role for it. In 1962, when BBC Television premiered its wonderful series of political satire ''That Was The Week That Was,'' print reporters asked a Cabinet member about the program's acid attacks on the British establishment and the Conservative Party. ''I'm going to do something about it,'' he said. Next morning he found a terse penciled note on his desk from Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan: ''Oh no you're not.''
In our era, living with politics has been trickier. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, given to privatizing everything, asked colleagues on taking office in 1979: ''What are we going to do about the Beeb?'' Scandalized by the insistence of BBC News to tell both sides of the Falkland Islands War between Britain and Argentina in 1983, as well as the Northern Ireland troubles, she ''thatcherized'' a traditionally balanced BBC Board of Governors by stacking it with Tories. She got the House of Commons to withhold part of the BBC's requested increase in the household license fee, which funds the domestic service. BBC News was forbidden to air spokesmen for the Irish Republican Army, or its political wing, Sinn Fein.
The pendulum swings. Thatcher's successors are friendlier. The ban was lifted, and the license fee raised.
The BBC's Royal Charter expires at the end of 1996. There's no question that Parliament will renew it for another 10 years. Anyone suggesting the zeroing out of the Beeb would be committing political suicide.