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The BBC Experience Ready for Prime Time
by Martin Revis

Visitors to London will be able to assess briefly their broadcasting skills at a five million pounds sterling exhibition which Queen Elizabeth II is due to open on 29 October.

The BBC Experience is employing the latest audio visual and interactive techniques to depict the Corporation's activities over the past 75 years and explain the advent of digital transmission promising high definition pictures and CD quality sound.

Aspiring actors and technicians may make a three minute radio play from a choice of action-packed scripts, do their own sound mixing and hear the results played back. Would-be television weather presenters and sports commentators can similarly record their own attempts and view the outcome. There is also a chance to direct "East Enders", the serial soap drama of east London life, by selecting and editing recently recorded scenes.

Guides will lead groups of about 30 people, departing at regular time booked intervals, through the anniversary show located on three floors of Broadcasting House, the distinctive art deco style building near Oxford Circus which opened in 1932 as the world's first purpose-built radio station.

The history of "Auntie", as the BBC is affectionately known, is described from the daily transmissions started in November 1922. Ten years later came the first Royal Christmas broadcast scripted by Rudyard Kipling for delivery by King George V. It reached listeners at home and overseas via the new Empire Service, the forerunner of the World Service, which today has an estimated 143 million regular listeners, of whom 35 million tune into the English language service.

Examples of programmes from six decades of television are being displayed, starting in 1936 with the opening in London of the world's first regular relatively high definition service when ten-inch screen sets for the few thousand subscribers in the London area cost 110 pounds sterling - more than 3,000 pounds in today's money.

The Corporation grew to become Europe's largest programme maker and exporter of audio visual material. Programme sales totalled 354 million pounds sterling last year when the documentary People's Century was top earner. Two epic dramas, Rhodes about the founder of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Joseph Conrad's Nostromo, both flops in terms of British ratings, were among the best sellers abroad.

BBC World, the commercial 24-hour TV news service now reaches 45 million homes across the world, 30 million of them in Europe. The reach is close to that of CNN in Asia and the Middle East and the next challenge facing the Corporation is to make the channel global by securing distribution in the United States.

At home, despite the multiplication of TV satellite, cable services andcommercial radio stations following deregulation, 95 per cent of households still tune into BBC television and radio for more than two hours every week.

The BBC's first clash with politicians came over coverage of the 1926 general strike in Britain and many more were to follow as broadcasters sought to follow the instruction of Sir John Reith, the corporation's founding director-general, who said simply in a brief memo "give both sides." The reputation for unbiased news treatment has helped the World Service, funded by an annual Parliamentary grant, to retain and increase listeners to its 45 language services.

Visitors will be able to sample some of these as they are relayed to the exhibition from studios elsewhere in London. Earlier this year the World Service, which has its own English language web site, introduced a Cantonese version, to be followed next by Arabic as the Internet service is progressively expanded.

At the Broadcasting House tour assembly point, artefacts from the Marconi collection are being displayed in public for the first time. They include the earliest radio equipment, diaries, telegrams from the doomed Titanic and the microphone used by Dame Nellie Melba for the song recital given during Britain's first advertised public broadcast programme in 1920, two years before daily transmission began.

The tour moves on to a seven screen presentation of a day in the life of Broadcasting House, a multi-media presentation of BBC history and the interactive radio and television studios where visitors can make test broadcasts. In the following technology section there are further "hands on'' activity opportunities, including a chance to operate a TV camera by remote control.

The final display explains how digital compressed signals are about to make better use of the crowded air waves to provide more television and radio channels with sharper definition pictures and Compact Disc quality sound.

The BBC launched the world's first digital radio service two years ago in a pilot project for a sample of listeners provided with prototype receivers. Models are expected to be in the shops by the end of this year. The World Service can already be received digitally in Paris and Berlin by listeners participating in another pilot scheme undertaken in association with German and French broadcasters.

Digital television, which can be delivered by satellite, land-based transmitters and cable is expected to start in Britain by the middle of next year. It will be provided free of charge to licence fee payers at the existing rate, although set top decoders will have to be paid for.

For more information, contact:

BBC Experience
PO Box 7000
Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom, CF5 2YU
Telephone:+ 44 1222 577771
Fax: +44 1222 578544      Copyright ©1999, LLC