What's the point of BBC4?

Once the home of Mad Men, The Killing and The Thick of It, the channel quietly turned 15 last week. But with a dearth of new hit shows and a confused identity, will it survive to reach 20?

Fifteen years ago this month, Britain’s oldest broadcaster added another TV network to the long-established BBC1 and BBC2. BBC4 arrived with its slogan “everybody needs a place to think” and adverts showing cultural figures such as the novelist Ian McEwan looking pensive in picturesque locations.

It was named, against all mathematical logic, because BBC3, a new service the corporation planned to launch first, had been held up by doubts from the second Blair administration about the BBC’s expansionist ambitions. In further numerical confusion, its first night - 2 March 2002 - was simulcast on BBC2, in a televisual version of the marketing ploy in which a taster-pack of a new product is given away free with an established brand.

Compared with the million viewers who tuned in for the BBC2 launch night, BBC4 was initially slow to find a place in the audience’s thoughts. The Guardian called it a “ratings travesty”. Numbers ranged from 3,000 for a spoof arts show called The Gist, and 5,000 for Surrealisimo, a drama about Salvador Dalí, while a film about Goya by the art historian Robert Hughes, drew 14,000 viewers. But what BBC4 was selling, recalls Roly Keating, its first controller, was “a channel that had culture and ideas at the heart of the schedule, rather than as an occasional treat in between other programmes”.

Although people sniggered at BBC4’s initial ratings, BBC2 had been launched into a landscape that included only three channels, while BBC4 was competing in a deregulated, digital environment that offered tens or even hundreds of options (BBC3, aimed at younger audiences, and BBC4 started as re-brandings of digital channels, BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge, that had failed to cut through the competition since their launch in 1998 and 1999 respectively).

Ratings progressively rose, and BBC4 was widely seen to have earned its bandwidth when, in 2004, The Alan Clark Diaries, a drama starring John Hurt as the libidinous and mischievous Conservative politician, was watched by 1 million people.

Much smaller audiences were also acceptable so long as the shows fulfilled the channel’s remit. Janice Hadlow, who succeeded Keating from 2004 to 2008 as controller of BBC4, says: “From the beginning, it has shown a willingness to take chances and go where other channels were more cautious to tread. Its tight budgets have meant that it’s always had to rely on creative ingenuity to make a splash.”

Under Keating, Hadlow and Richard Klein (controller from 2008 to 2013), BBC4 established a distinctive identity built on giving prominence to serious documentary (the internationally acclaimed series Storyville), quirky drama (the Thatcher bio-drama, The Long Walk to Finchley), edgy comedy (The Thick of It), and documentaries on art and architecture (fronted by Waldemar Januszczak, Andrew Graham-Dixon, Jonathan Meades, among others) of a kind that had been displaced from the more lifestyle-oriented BBC2. It also specialised in long-form interviews, with my series – Mark Lawson Talks To..., running from 2005 to 2016, while the historian Lucy Worsley, who now appears on BBC1, was one of those who served their apprenticeship on the network.

The Killing
Season two of The Killing. Photograph: Tine Harden/BBC

The original 2002 mission statement also included “international cinema”, and this was expanded to include foreign television, which could be regarded as BBC4’s most lasting legacy. Its screening of Mad Men was formative in changing the UK’s attitude to US drama from dismissiveness to submissiveness. Its imported Swedish and Danish hits – including The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen – established that subtitled stories could find a British audience, encouraging other channels to shop from Scandinavian suppliers, and also to adopt the slower rhythms of Scandi-drama in homegrown series such as Broadchurch and The Missing. “Would any of this have happened without BBC4?” asks Hadlow.

But the high audiences for such shows created an unexpected issue for the channel. The network struggled to hold on to its own inventions: The Thick of It was promoted to BBC2, while the later seasons of Mad Men went to Sky, which along with Channel 4, could out-bid BBC4 for foreign acquisitions.

At the same time, with the BBC under pressure from government to spend less and do less, there were discussions both internally and externally, regarding whether the corporation could continue to justify a place for relatively small audiences. In a corporate restructuring in 2013, the network ceased to have its own controller and was given an “editor” – Cassian Harrison – who answered to a multi-channel overlord.

During a recent round of what BBC management refers to as “efficiency savings” (programme-makers call them “cuts”), BBC4 went head-to-head with its digital sibling BBC3 in a fiscal equivalent of a Strictly “dance-off”: elimination, in this case, meant relegation to being a limited online service. Director-general Tony Hall – naturally more protective, critics argue, of BBC4’s cultural remit than BBC3’s youth-aimed output – chose BBC3 for the technological drop (on Tuesday, in the shortlists for the 2017 Royal Television Society Awards, BBC3 received 11 nominations, including channel of the year, against a single listing for a BBC4 programme).

Keating is now chief executive of the British Library. But, if he were still high up in BBC television, would he have made the decision to put BBC3 online and keep BBC4 broadcasting? “Today’s conversation is about BBC4,” he replies.

The survival of the channel he started, however, came at a cost-cutting price. The BBC4 budget is hard to calculate because some of its core output (news, the Proms) draws on other internal pots of BBC cash. However, the corporation’s annual accounts list the network as having a budget of £50m for “content” in 2012, which was down to £44.2m from 2015 to 2016.

This may still sound a lot to a licence-payer, but as a comparison, BBC1 was receiving more than £1bn annually throughout this period. However you cut it, Harrison has at least 15-20% less to spend than his predecessors. He declines to specify, but calls the reduction “very significant”.

In the week of the channel’s birthday, the corporation did not mark the occasion with any on-air acknowledgement or special programming. BBC4 screened only two new programmes, apart from news bulletins: Sound Waves – the Symphony of Physics, a documentary about the science of music, and Roots, a remake of a famous American slavery drama. Several programmes, including Andrew Marr’s film about recovery from a stroke, had been seen very recently on other networks.

All Aboard! The Country Bus
Action from All Aboard! The Country Bus Photograph: Lucy Bowden/BBC/The Garden Productions/Lucy Bowden

“At the moment,” Harrison explains, “we’re looking at how we can maximise BBC2 programming and some BBC1 programming in a bit more of a high-tempo way.” What does a “high-tempo” use of old programmes mean? “It just means repeating things a bit faster, rather than three, four months down the line.”

Clearly there would be an identity risk if BBC4 became a more rapid-repeater for shows from BBC1 and 2? “There is, and we’re keenly aware of that. We’re cognizant of what the cuts have done - everywhere in the BBC has had to have cuts – but, from Tony Hall downwards, the purpose of maintaining BBC4 as a singular editorial offer still stands.”

Some of the schedule still feels like classic BBC4 – a history of photography started this week, a series on surrealism will follow – and Harrison points out that audiences are “actually growing at the moment”.

But the problem with using ratings as a metric is that the channel is defined not just by how many tune in but by what they are watching. Harrison’s biggest innovation, which has reached the magic million viewers, is “slow TV”, an adoption of a Norwegian genre in which film of a leisurely journey is shown in real time. BBC4 recently transmitted the view through a bus window on a two-hour circuit through the Yorkshire Dales. Audiences for these glacial travelogues, says Harrison, “keep climbing every time we do one”.

While showing a 120-minute country bus journey without commentary may be innovative in its way, such programmes might be seen as positioning the channel as a background activity while you drink, rather than “a place to think”. So does the 2002 sales-line still apply?

“I think it still stands as a good slogan,” says Harrison. “In Janice’s time, it was ‘clever pleasure’, which was a good one. I think ours is ‘venture deeper and look differently’.”

As BBC3, which eventually launched in 2003, will be a part-time online network when it reaches its 15th birthday next year, the question arises of where and what BBC4 might be when its 20th anniversary comes round. Will – and should – it still be a standalone broadcast channel in 2022? Keating says: “As a regular viewer, I sincerely hope so.” Hadlow is more cautious: “Given the volatility of the broadcast landscape, given the rate and pace of change we’ve seen in thr last five years, it’s almost impossible to predict what that landscape might look like in 2022. But I would very much hope there’s a Four-shaped piece to be found somewhere in the jigsaw.”


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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