A narrower perspective 

5 June 2011 tbs.pm/1265

As a television channel, BBC Four has been the subject of much scrutiny as of late, and not just because it happens to be a digital-only TV channel with a relatively small audience (less than 1% share overall), which in purely marketing terms is not a good thing.

You may be well aware that the BBC still needs to save money as a consequence of a hurried and somewhat controversial licence fee settlement, but whether turning BBC Four into a predominantly arts-only channel will actually have the desired effect is wide open to debate.

So-called “multichannel fragmentation” has arguably hit BBC Two the hardest, with its slightly more specialist output being shunted into ‘youth-orientated’ (BBC Three) and ‘highbrow’ (BBC Four) channels, leaving BBC Two with an identity crisis despite having popular programming such as Gardeners’ World, Springwatch and Top Gear.

(BBC Two is basically a more public service-orientated Channel 4 with one hand tied behind its back, for want of a better analogy.)

From BBC Four’s perspective, it has made BBC Two weaker by cannibalising its formerly ‘highbrow’ output as well as sucking resources into a specialist channel that relatively few people watch, although BBC Four’s audience figures still compare favourably with other digital-only channels (such as ITV4) despite its relatively low share of the audience.

However you can use exactly the same arguments for BBC Three as well, plus it’s easier to argue that BBC Three has had a far more detrimental effect on BBC Two’s comedy output in particular than anything else over the last ten years, at least until very recently.

BBC Three has also been partly responsible for the rise of “box-ticking” in terms of comedy and drama commissioning; channel controllers have been thinking more in terms of serving specific target audiences as opposed to simply “Is it any good?”, even though they’re really meant to do both at the same time.

(There are only so many ideas in circulation at any one time, which makes this sort of thing rather difficult.)

Combine all of this with the recent loss of various sporting events to rivals (Sky in particular), and BBC Two starts to look threadbare to the extent that sacrificing its daytime output is now becoming a very seriously-considered option.

So has the BBC’s “multichannel experiment” been a complete failure apart from CBeebies, “Being Human” and “Little Britain”?

Probably not, but judged purely by ratings alone it’s perhaps easy to conclude that it has, especially when these channels’ most popular offerings are seen by many more viewers when repeated on BBC One and BBC Two.

This is despite the fact that digital TV is now available in nearly 90% of all households with access to television. Old habits die hard, it seems, but BBC2 took many years before it became an accepted mainstream channel, shaking off its “highbrow only” image only relatively recently.

One idea I personally had for the reorganisation of the BBC’s digital channels was to scrap BBC Four altogether but occasionally feature an additional “red button” video stream for broadcasting of live concerts/opera during the evening as a highbrow alternative to Top Gear or whatever happens to be on BBC Two at the time.

This however relied on BBC Two regaining most if not all of its highbrow documentaries and drama output, therefore we can conclude that any proposal to turn BBC Four into “BBC Arts” will need to do something similar if we as licence fee-payers aren’t going to lose anything significant in terms of televisual output.

Making a near-enough direct competitor to Sky Arts seems to be a marketing-related decision that fits current strategy, eg. the Radio 4 Extra rebrand, but unless BBC Four’s award-winning comedy and drama output can find a home on BBC Two then there will be a real sense of loss in terms of breath and depth of output across the BBC as a whole.

You Say

1 response to this article

peezedtee 6 June 2011 at 12:34 pm

The serious documentaries are almost all I ever watch on TV these days. Current examples are the Adam Curtis series and Andrew Marr’s programmes about megacities. Sometimes they are on BBC4, sometimes they are on BBC2, often they seem to be on one first and then repeated on the other. To the viewer this makes little sense, but I don’t really care which channel they are on, as long as they keep being made. My worry is that BBC cuts might mean less of this sort of programming and more downmarket cheapo populist junk.

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