Suddenly, the BBC Is a World-Beater

Its war coverage is giving it a wider audience. Will the viewers tune in once the shooting stops?

The U.S. may have won the war in Iraq, but when it comes to the battle of the airwaves, victory belongs to the British Broadcasting Corp. "The Beeb" is gaining viewers from around the globe with its sober, authoritative coverage of the war. Even in the U.S., the world's most competitive media market, the BBC is making inroads against other 24-hour international news channels such as CNN and Fox News. Viewers who feel as if coverage has been too unrelentingly pro-U.S. have been flocking to the Beeb. "I cannot trust any of the other stations to be truthful," says Aletha Carlton, 68, a retired art therapist in Norwalk, Conn. "They appear to omit what could be seen as critical of the U.S. The BBC doesn't leave things out."

It's also true that the Beeb has come in for plenty of criticism. From the right, the BBC is dubbed the Baghdad Broadcasting Corp., while the left complains that it's more like the Blair-Bush Corp. But in journalistic terms, BBC brass figures, they must be doing something right when the barbs come from both sides. Indeed, for a growing number of viewers like Carlton, the BBC stands for better, balanced coverage. Tune into the BBC during the recent conflict, and you'd have gotten the usual reports from embedded journalists and the Pentagon. But viewers have also noted the detailed interviews with locals in Iraq and reports from the rest of the Arab world with less visual clutter and flag-waving. The Beeb's wartime popularity has even allowed it to shake off some stodginess: The New York Post recently nicknamed the BBC's Baghdad correspondent, Rageh Omaar, the Scud Stud of this Iraq war.

In other words, what the first Gulf War did for CNN internationally, the Iraq conflict is doing for the Beeb. People all over the world are watching BBC World, tuning into the BBC World Service radio broadcasts, or logging onto the BBC's Web site. "Frankly, we're stunned at the reaction," says Terrel Cass, president of WLIW-TV on Long Island, which distributes BBC World to public-TV stations.

Audiences outside Britain tune into BBC World, the broadcaster's commercially funded 24-hour news channel. In the U.S., news shows from the nine-year-old BBC World are shown on 221 public stations and via cable-and-satellite channel BBC America, which is supported by advertising unlike its ad-free service at home. Since the start of the war, ratings in the U.S. are up 28%, with 662,000 homes tuning in, according to Nielsen Media Research. But even before, BBC World was increasing market share. In the past year, BBC World's global audience has increased by 27%, to 254 million. "BBC doesn't just have a British view. It has a world view for the world," says Mark Byford, director of the BBC's World Service and Global News.

Its new momentum could allow the once-sleepy BBC to start poaching some advertising from its hard-driving rivals CNN and Fox. "Eventually the afterglow effect dissipates, like it did with CNN after the Gulf War in 1991," says Larry Gerbrandt, chief content officer at consultancy Kagan World Media. "But the smaller services this time around could have more success," because they're distinctive. Welcome news back in London, to be sure, where BBC World posted losses of $24 million for the year ended Mar. 31, 2002, due largely to declines in ad revenue. Add to that the $1.6 million a week the BBC has been spending on war coverage.

Until the war, most Americans knew the BBC more for its high-quality dramas and comedies, like East Enders and Absolutely Fabulous, which gained a cult following. BBC Worldwide, the corporation's commercial arm, sold more than 40,000 hours of programming last year, contributing to revenue gains of 12% to more than $1 billion. BBC Worldwide even managed to give back $167 million to the publicly funded news service in Britain last year. Watch out, CNN and Fox -- the Brits are back.

By Kerry Capell in London with Tom Lowry in New York

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.