Force majeure 

1 January 2004

Russ J Graham wonders if BBC4 is a godsend or a ghetto

The BBC’s digital future is here – finally. After two false starts (BBC Knowledge and BBC Choice), the first ‘proper’ mixed television channel from the BBC since 1964’s BBC-2 is finally here, having launched on the day of writing this article, 2 March 2002, at 7pm.

BBC-4’s raison d’être is to provide highbrow programming for a sector of the population long forgotten by the existing channels – the middle classes. The creation of a channel specifically covering this area has been taken to mean that highbrow programming is being ghettoised. But the arrival of this new service could mean that those of us who want such programming are being especially catered for.

It all depends on how the BBC goes about it. If the creation of BBC-4 means that programmes like Horizon, Omnibus and Everyman – covering the big three of science, arts and philosophy – disappear from BBC-1 and 2 schedules then yes, BBC-4 is a ghetto.

If, however, these programmes and others of their type remain on the two older channels, albeit in the off-hours, but are repeated (or even shown first) on BBC-4 at primetime, then this is something to celebrate.

Indeed, this second scenario is a win-win situation for the BBC. A programme like Omnibus remains where those who haven’t, through inertia, turned off may accidentally stumble across it -on a mainstream BBC channel. This way the BBC continues to trick people into watching something good for them, just what television and mixed-genre programme should be doing.

That the programme also gets a primetime repeat on BBC-4 is even better. That way, those of us who don’t need to be tricked into watching highbrow programmes, or even actually seek them out, will get our dose of culture whilst the rest are watching the endless diet of soaps and quiz shows that pass for primetime programming these days.

The new international-dominated BBC News programme on BBC-4 will be another great benefit of this service, but only if the BBC manages to do two things. Firstly, they must make sure that BBC-4’s news drops the terrible “Paris, France” mentality and assumes the viewer is smart enough to either know what the reporter is talking about or to look it up if actually left in ignorance.

Secondly, the BBC must not, under any circumstances, use the existence of a highbrow news service on Four to undermine or dumb down the 10pm bulletin on BBC-1. This is for roughly the same reasons as above – BBC-1’s news must be allowed to creep up and catch at least some proportion of its audience unawares. This idea of forcing intelligent and thought-provoking programming – especially news – on viewers has been out of fashion for a decade. But it still goes on and must continue.

The BBC’s two new channels, plus the themed children’s channels it recently introduced, have angered the commercial stations. ITV’s determinedly lowbrow management are screaming that BBC-3, the youth channel, will eat at its audience. This is the usual claptrap from a dying channel that no longer knows what its core audience is, or indeed who they are. This opinion – like virtually every one espoused by ITV – is of no consequence at all in the real world and can be safely ignored.

The main complaints about the BBC digital offerings have come from Channel Four. Now, if C4 were complaining that BBC-4 was standing on their toes, there would be an argument that could be understood, at least from the point of view of Channel 4’s remit.

But, as usual, the organisation complaining sheds more light on its own thinking than the subject it is trying to highlight. Channel Four complains that BBC-3 will be taking C4 viewers and therefore money that C4 would use for public service programmes.

This shows that Channel Four has truly lost its way, for C4 was the BBC-4 of its day on launch. Relentlessly arty, cultural and alternative, determinedly middle class – all terms that described Channel Four on starting. That it now sees itself as nothing more than a youth channel is a shame beyond recognition for all viewers. That C4 sees no irony in seeing BBC-3 as competition and not BBC-4 is deeply ironic in itself.

If the BBC get this channel right, BBC-4 will be unstoppable. BBC-3 will follow on its coattails, riding the wave of a renewed middle class approval for BBC services. In the end, the BBC cannot prevent the ultimate privatisation of its functions by the next Tory government, whenever that may be. Thank heavens for Ian Duncan Smith. But the right way to begin fighting the dumbing down the UK is for the BBC to go upmarket and ignore the whines of commercial television interests who feel threatened because the BBC’s programming is of greater quality than they can dream of producing.

That Greg Dyke – that arch-populist and progenitor of Roland Rat – should have brought about the birth of an upmarket, middle-class service like BBC-4 is encouraging. It shows that a team as talented as that behind ITV’s current schedule should be set free of the shackles that ‘the Stupid Network’ is forcing on them. On the same theme, the Conservatives, in the guise of media spokesman Tim Yeo, have stated that the BBC’s digital plans are no more than a device to win back the younger viewer.

Let them. It isn’t a crime. The commercialisation of British society has gone too far, and the middle classes – not the majority, but traditionally the power behind the government – have been mistreated by commercial television for too long. BBC-4, if the Corporation have the guts, marks the start of the reverse of these attitudes. BBC-3 should do the same. Time will tell.

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