How TV Fees Let BBC Sidestep Commercials

Programmers beholden only to license-holders weigh merit as well as ratings

When former Minister for Broadcasting Tony Benn urged the Labour government to consider allowing advertising on the British Broadcasting Corporation, the reaction was outrage.

The year was 1965. Mr. Benn, seen then as a pragmatist and not as the bogeyman of the left he is now, warned that without TV commercials the BBC would not be able to avert a cash crisis.

His proposal was shocking then. Thirty years later, it is hardly less so. Debates about overhauling the system have cropped up regularly, most recently when the BBC's charter came up for renewal in November. But moves to allow advertising on the BBC or to revoke the license-fee system have never gained serious momentum.

The BBC, so much an institution that people call it ''Auntie,'' is funded almost entirely by its license-fee system. Every household that uses a television is required by law to pay an annual fee ranging from roughly $80 to $100. Those funds help ensure that viewers receive largely quality programming, uninterrupted by commercials.

''The license-fee system means that we - not advertisers, not the government, and not sponsors - actually decide what to put on the air,'' says BBC spokesman Mark Flanagan. ''We're not driven by the need to put high-rating programs on the air.''

The result is that programs are considered not only for ratings potential, but for merit and viewer representation as well. Programs that wouldn't necessarily appeal to a majority of viewers - such as televised operas, ethnic game shows, and gardening specials - are often shown on BBC2.

''A white, middle-class male would be interested in watching programs on history and current affairs,'' Mr. Flanagan says. ''But we still have a tremendous amount of viewers interested in watching [soap opera] 'EastEnders,' [game show] 'Noel's House Party,' and the lottery. Our aim is to satisfy some of the people all of the time, and as many people as we can some of the time.''

A RECENT poll showed that 95 percent of all households in Great Britain watch or listen to the BBC at least two hours weekly. The corporation has two national television channels, five national radio networks, and numerous local TV and radio stations.

All British households receive the two BBC television channels as well as two independent channels, which are funded largely by commercials. Britons can also receive a host of satellite and cable stations, both domestic and foreign, if they subscribe at an additional cost.

The license-fee scheme cannot ensure that programs are selected without bias, but the system helps keep the BBC independent of state control. Its programming must follow guidelines set out in the BBC Charter, which comes up for renewal every 10 years.

The latest charter stipulates a regulatory role for a body inside the BBC to make sure it meets its obligations to license-fee payers, such as equal viewer representation and the mandatory publication of the objectives and standards that license-fee payers can expect.

The charter arranges for the BBC to develop other commercial services. It also guarantees a level of independence to regional broadcasters within the corporation.

The charter also provides guidelines on taste, decency, and impartiality. And it ensures that ''sensitive'' programming unsuitable for children is only shown after 9 p.m.

''We describe the term 'public service' as our responsibility to provide programs - made to the highest quality [and] as cost effective as possible - to inform, educate, and entertain the whole population of the UK,'' says Nicholas Moss, head of BBC's policy management. ''Since the BBC is funded by a universal license fee, its programs should offer a wide range of subject matter so that all sections of the population will find material of interest and value to them,'' he says.

Those guidelines are augmented by the independent Broadcasting Standards Council, a government-funded watchdog that monitors public complaints and decides whether or not to publicly censure the program in question.

Public complaints are mixed, but many focus on programs that show too much sex or violence, use foul language, or go beyond accepted boundaries of taste or decency. Still others concern the stereotypical portrayal of ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, or women as victims; some criticize the news coverage of a disaster, crime, or accident.

''We don't have the power to fine people, we really do flag-waving,'' says Broadcasting Standards Council spokeswoman Nicky Grader. ''Our complaints committee reviews the findings and sends the results to interested parties.''

Often they are the media. A soap opera called ''Emmerdale,'' for example, aired by Independent Television, was recently censured for a graphic scene of an attempted rape.

The license-fee system has existed since the BBC was founded 75 years ago. It was seen then as the fairest way to fund the service, which enjoyed a broadcast monopoly. But even in today's competitive market, few question the system.

If the BBC were privatized, ''there would be a real danger that the programming would be very sterile - or, dare I say, 'American' - in its approach, and we would lose the opportunity to do programming like 'Pride and Prejudice,' for example,'' Flanagan says.

Viewers must notify the private BBC licensing agency when they buy a TV. If they do not pay their fee, they are taken to court, where they can receive stiff fines. If they still don't pony up, they can be jailed for up to one month - as were about 850 Britons last year.

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