By Niall Anderson
Do you remember the furore when BBC Knowledge was axed? Were you part of the protest?
Here was a channel dedicated to the purest Reithian ideal. It had science documentaries, serious arts coverage, challenging first-run drama and comedy. It ran twenty-four hours a day. It had recognisable anchors and presenters. Now its budget and personnel were going to be slashed by two-thirds.
Its replacement would be a mere eight hours of programming every night. Most of that would be repeats and imports. BBC Knowledge had won a small but committed audience that was growing month by month. It was surely too soon to pull the plug.
This was 2002.
Do you remember BBC Knowledge at all? Congratulations: you must have worked on it. There were no protests. BBC Knowledge (extensive, serious, unlamented) was quietly replaced by BBC4.
According to its charter, BBC4 shows 100 hours of new programming every year: the equivalent of seven whole days. In the eight and a half years of BBC4’s existence, it has therefore shown barely 80 days of new content. When you consider the extensive coverage given to The Proms every year (and the only slightly less extensive coverage given to Glastonbury, which BBC4 shares with BBC2), that figure must easily come down to 50 hours.
And yet, when news leaked that the BBC was considering cutting BBC4’s budget, the response was a thousand wailing and gnashing tweets from across the land. To which I can only say: we were expelled from the Garden of Eden in 2002; it seems the summit of futility to start complaining that we now risk losing the garden shed.
About that shed. It’s solid. BBC4 has produced good programming. We wouldn’t have had The Thick Of It without the protective screen of very few viewers. It’s also picked its imports wisely: Wallander, Forbrydelsen (The Killing), Spiral. All of them word-of-mouth successes: heartening proof that niche programming is just something PRs haven’t yet learned how to market.
But an enlightened attitude to subtitling and Scandinavian gloom only recommends BBC4 insofar as it was first to get there. To applaud the channel for this is to swallow the vapid notion that if BBC4 wasn’t doing it, nobody else would. It misses, above all, the existence of BBC2.
BBC2 is the real victim of the BBC funding wars. Despite the conservatism of BBC4’s charter and its spotty output overall, it’s easy enough to say what the channel stands for. It stands for in-depth arts coverage and decorative science docs. But you don’t have to be terribly old to remember that this very territory (those 90 hours of content per decade) was once comfortably exceeded by BBC2. So it’s worth asking what BBC2 stands for today. The answer, largely, is nothing. BBC2 has no identity. Aside from unbudgeable old-stagers like Newsnight, its primetime content is increasingly material that’s been earmarked for international syndication.
There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. A corporate subsidiary like BBC Worldwide will flog existing BBC programming to the international market and then seek to reinvest the money in new programming – often with external production companies or channels. In theory, this means the BBC exposes itself to fresh voices and new ways of doing things, balancing its public service remit with the editorial necessities of commercial organisations. In practice, this balance is very difficult to strike. Which means that BBC co-productions tend to skew towards particular types of content that the BBC is already known for being good at, only now with a pronounced Atlanticist style.
So how can you tell you’re watching something that’s been made with international syndication in mind? The first clue is that it will be non-fiction. The second is that it will be narrated by somebody with presumed youth appeal, which on these shores means David Tennant or Stephen Fry. The third is that every twelve minutes, David or Stephen will repeat a thing they’ve just said, word for word: a quiet indication that the programme has been developed with adverts in mind. This programme will go out first on BBC2 (or, let’s be fair, any channel except BBC4) and the viewer is expected not to notice that they’re being twatted around the head with repetitions and redundancies.
This might seem to some an argument precisely for keeping BBC4 as it is. But why fight a rearguard action when you don’t need to? Say this for the BBC Charter, its eternal mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ guarantees a presence for the arts and sciences on BBC TV. It becomes a question of how much you can have, and where you put it.
To give you some idea of the extent to which BBC4 is a distracting non-issue in this argument, consider this: in 2002, when the channel was launched, BBC2 was showing 200 hours of arts programming a year. BBC4 therefore represented a 50% reduction even on that output, and nobody noticed.
Likewise, nobody noticed that the very invention of BBC4 represented a capitulation to the idea that the arts and sciences were peripheral interests, worthy of a peripheral channel. One of the glories of BBC programming down the ages – and one of the reasons the BBC retains such vestigial loyalty from so many people – has been its canny variety: the way you were almost tricked into watching that documentary about Rembrandt because it just happened to be on after the thing you were actually interested in. As JG Ballard once put it, the BBC is “the greatest source of education and enlightenment the world has ever known, with the possible exception of the Roman Catholic church.” The BBC’s historical refusal to make things easy for people – to split things up into easily digested morsels of content – is precisely the reason for the corporation’s global popularity.
So here’s a radical idea: kill BBC4. It’s a dead end. Reinvest the money in BBC2 and recommit to the original Reithian idea that variety is as important as consistency. (Where scheduling makes things difficult for completists, there is now the red button, the iPlayer, PVRs.) Let people wonder again what’s coming next.