BBC to b’cast U.S. channel

The BBC is planning to launch an international news and current affairs channel in the U.S. within the next year as part of its plans to expand World Service Television.

Details of the pubcaster’s first direct involvement in a channel designed for U.S. viewers are sketchy. But deputy director general Bob Phillis, speaking at the Financial Times cable and satellite conference Tuesday, said the BBC hoped to start the channel at the end of this year or early 1995.

He said it would provide an international perspective on world events and would include documentaries. If all goes according to plan, the channel will be the first British news channel to enter the U.S. market — ahead of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News.

The BBC stressed the venture would not compete head-on with CNN. “This is not a rival to CNN,” said Phillis. “It is a niche cable service which will complement other existing services in the U.S. We will be offering other programming as well as the news.”

The BBC enjoys a worldwide reputation for its news coverage but has long envied CNN’s pre-eminence in the international market, particularly during the Gulf War.

The initiative is part of the BBC’s attempt to raise its profile in the global marketplace.

The pubcaster has already announced plans to launch a new service in Japan in partnership with Nissho Iwai starting this summer.

It also aims to begin transmitting the World Service news and information channel in Europe later this year alongside a BBC entertainment service.

The BBC also intends to start an Arab-language version of World Service Television on the Arabsat satellite in the next few months.

But World Service English-language service on Asia’s Star TV, which Murdoch owns, has run into legal difficulties.

Tuesday, Phillis said, “The BBC is currently in discussion with a number of existing and potential partners, both in Britain and abroad.

“We are seeking to combine the BBC’s program strengths and reputation with access to the new technology or distribution channels, knowledge of particular markets or regions or complementary television programming that might enrich an existing or new channel concept.

“These could take the form of BBC branded channels, strands within existing channels or new joint ventures in partnership with others.”

World Service Television, launched in April 1991, runs two channels, a news and information service and an entertainment net.

It is available via satellite in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe. News bulletins are distributed to Russia, Eastern Europe and Canada.

While acknowledging the quality of the BBC’s programs, media observers wonder if the pubcaster has the commercial flair to become a major player on the world media stage.

Some industryites think the BBC would be a more effective worldwide operator if its commercial activities were divorced from its role as a public service broadcaster.

But Tuesday Phillis ruled out the possibility of this happening.

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