BBC Tries Not to Go Down the Tube

AMERICANS, whose image of British broadcasting was molded largely by the civilized airs of Masterpiece Theatre, may have to adjust their mental antennas for this message: The BBC has too much sex and violence.

Or so says the British Broadcasting Corp.'s board of governors, which wants to tighten its already-strict rules on program content, both for TV and radio. The British government, too, has ordered a study of the V-chip, a TV device that blocks programs deemed unsuitable for children.

These moves reflect growing public unease about "adult" programs, heightened by the shock over the massacre of 16 Scottish children by a deranged gunman on March 13.

The moves also mirror recent initiatives in the United States, where President Clinton has ordered that in two years all TV sets sold in the US must have the V-chip. Also, in a vote earlier this year, the 15-nation European Parliament endorsed the chip as a means of giving parents greater control of children's viewing.

The BBC clampdown is a "response to rising concern about standards of taste and decency on TV and radio," says chairman Marmaduke Hussey. BBC programs account for about 43 percent of all TV viewing in Britain and just under 50 percent of radio listening. The new rules will come into force later this year.

The BBC will require its producers to have what Mr. Hussey calls "respect for the audience." Before framing the new rules, the governors, who oversee the corporation's board of management, held a special seminar last November. There, 125 people from many walks of life viewed and listened to a comprehensive selection of controversial items from the BBC.

They included a scene of rape in a TV costume drama, an orgy in a TV comedy program, and recorded excerpts from a radio series that made off-color jokes about Jesus.

After the seminar, the board of governors decided to tighten existing guidelines, drawn up three years ago, and to require program producers to stay strictly within them. There are also plans to study and possibly adopt the V-chip concept.

In deciding to apply more stringent guidelines to its TV and radio output, the BBC had to consider its status as a public corporation, separate from government, and financed by annual license fees payable by all homes and other premises with a TV set.

Compared with the US, radio programs in Britain attract large numbers of listeners to plays, classical serials, short stories, and poetry programs, as well as the usual rock music and talk shows. But many complaints to the BBC about foul language and blasphemy have been directed at its radio programs.

The corporation's charter is renewed by the government at five-year intervals and permits the BBC to "police" its own programs. The charter will be renewed this summer, and for the first time, the BBC will have a strictly formal commitment to taste and decency in all its programs.

Also, the BBC plans stricter enforcement of the 9 p.m. TV "watershed." For many years, programs screened before 9 p.m. have been assumed by the public to be family viewing. Programs after that time were expected to adhere to less-stringent rules.

Hussey says the watershed has become blurred, with violence and the flippant use of holy names and other loose language too common before 9 p.m.

The National Viewers' and Listeners' Association - the largest and most influential volunteer "watchdog" group - has welcomed the new rules. But John Beyer, its general secretary, warns that it is important that in future they are "fully adhered to."

"The problem lately has been that the guidelines have not been made clear to program makers. I hope that is about to change," he says. There appears a good chance they will be. As well as having a board of governors and a board of management, the BBC maintains regional committees nationwide. These monitor program output and send their detailed findings to the governors. The governors then consult with the board of management, which issues instructions and advice to BBC program makers.

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