The Controller’s Chair: BBC TV 

2 July 2005

Continuing our occasional series in which our writers consider what they would do if they were the controller of a channel, James Pittman couldn’t just take on a single BBC television channel – he wanted all of them. All right, just this once.

Between 1964 and 1997, BBC Television was BBC1 and BBC2. BBC1 was the principal instrument of British television broadcasting, and BBC2, as its sidekick, provided the alternative choices, the special interests and a bit more information and education to balance out any excess of entertainment BBC1 might choose to indulge in when sizing itself up against ITV. In a simple two channel BBC world, it was straightforward and it worked. But then came the other six networks and ‘interactive’ television.

At first the extra services didn’t really make much difference to the status quo. Most people didn’t have digital TV, and of those that did, BBC 1 and 2 pulled in by far the biggest ratings, and had by far the largest amounts of money spent on them. Anything else was just a complementary service providing a bit of extra on the side. Now, however, times have changed. More homes now have digital television in some form than don’t, and the new BBC services, in particular BBC3 and 4, are becoming watched more and more, and a bigger part of the BBC’s plan. But where is it all going?

In an multichannel (well, eight-channel) world, the BBC needs to start thinking exactly how it is going to operate a TV service – and I’d like to give it some friendly advice.

What is BBC2?

When BBC4 first launched, a few people who were around at the time of the launch of BBC2 said to me that this new station was very much like a much-older sister in content and feel, only some 30 years on. When BBC3 finally joined us, to me it felt in many parts similar to BBC2 in the mid 1990s when it got something of a reputation for successful alternative comedy and the Fast Show craze was as big as the Little Britain craze is today. When I look at BBC2 now, I see a channel with its raison d’etre stolen from it. BBC 3 and 4 are being shaped into what BBC2 should have been, leaving a rather pointless channel which is still supposedly the third most-watched network in the country, yet given the remit of a minority interest station. It is time for a big change.

Home and Light

I like to draw certain parallels between BBC television at the dawn of its new multi-station age and BBC radio at about the equivalent time in its life, 40 years ago. Having managed to create many radio services all offering a great diet of choice and public service commitment without ‘narrowcasting’, or ‘ghettoising’, there is at least a proven model with which television can move forward. If we go back a little further with the comparison, we see two networks which are exactly what I would like BBCs 1 and 2 to be like – the Home Service and the Light Programme.

In the years between the end of the Second World War and when television really become an important factor in most people’s lives, these two services were the bread and butter of the broadcast media. They were both mainstream radio stations, listened to en masse, but more importantly for this analogy, they both managed to provide the traditional notions of Reithian public service broadcasting with the variety that came with mixed-content networks. Both aired sports, news, plays, educational output, children’s programming music, documentaries – in fact, every sort of programming. Their differences were not the type or genre of their content but their style and atmosphere; the Home more formal, educated and serious in its tone, the Light, easier listening and perhaps more comfortable. This is how I’d like to see BBC2 and BBC1 – both mainstream, popular, mixed content covering every area with mass appeal but a strong public service ethos and differing tones. BBC1 would be like the Home and BBC2 like the Light.

‘Stenders, Wogan and Pebble Mill

People are going to need to really know that there has been a change and no way is more obvious than putting the most popular comedy, drama and serials onto BBC2, the new home for popular light entertainment and factual programming. I see this channel as being a light family channel aimed at all ages and professions with an easy to watch, cosy feel that is open to everybody. From Eastenders to the FA Cup to My Family to David Attenborough, the new BBC2 would be interspersed with an extended family of familiar faces, in-vision, who would double up as continuity announcers, presenters, interviewers and entertainers. The evenings would take on a feel not too dissimilar to the Wogan show of the 1980s, with guest appearances, the odd bit of comedy, the occasional live band and variety act here and there filling the gaps between the evening schedules. This could then have special attention on a Friday and Saturday night when the entire network could get glammed’ up and put on a showbizzy feel, London Weekend style. In the daytime, the same approach could give a day-long Pebble Mill-come-This Morning feel with a magazine style approach, including news, light entertainment and factual programming interspersed with a serious yet watchable series of news bulletins which would pop up at various points in the day and evening.

Dumbed Up

Anybody who listens to Radio 4 more than a couple of times must surely end up asking themselves why television cannot be this enlightened and intellectual too. This is the Home Service-style BBC1 that I am looking for and if the Home Service isn’t a good enough model, then Radio 4 gives us a modern-day image of what the principal television channel ought to look and feel like. A deeper, less parochial and more analytical set of News programmes and bulletins would begin to set the tone as would a collection of well-written plays and dramas (the more sensational dramas such as Holby City and Doctors would move to BBC2), thought-out documentaries as well as comedy (I can see Have I got News for You working well here) and factual magazine programmes on a par with Women’s Hour, You and Yours or Home Truths.

A Choice of Viewing

BBCs 3 and 4 are going in the right direction to serve the minority and alternative interests of television, but I would still like to see some changes. Especially with BBC3, which whilst being half way there, has still some way to go.

The first thing that is wrong with BBC3 is that it claims to be for 18-34 year olds. All of the four channels will be aimed at all ages and all genres, so that would be the first thing to go. Second would be the celebrity fascination. Already Liquid News is dead as is Celebdaq- the rest would be the basis for something which is the bastard love child of Radio 1 in the evenings and early late-night Channel 4. The channel won’t try to be a youth channel, nor cool, nor trendy, nor popular, but will hopefully achieve that badge anyway by showcasing alternative culture, music, life and viewpoints in a gritty, modern and different way, with no boundaries and no inhibitions about breaking taboos and doing new things. All the same genres will be covered as on 1 and 2 but in an alternative light. Music will be a very important staple of the new BBC3, with underground and alternative contemporary music and art from Break Beats to Beatnik having a place.

In the Clear

As emphasis and budget extends into the realms of BBC 3 and 4, I believe both ought to move into a full 24-hour time frame, where they can (but don’t have to) operate at any hour of the day, contrary to the current restrictions. Whilst I see both continuing as predominantly evening services (though beginning at around 5pm) I see scope for daytime output on both networks.

On BBC3, I’d like to see popular music videos played. In uninterrupted, unannounced widescreen with no on screen graphics whatsoever, other than title and artist, not even something to say “BBC3”. The content would be somewhat broader and deeper than the Top 40, taking the most talked about tunes of the day within each and every contemporary genre and using this as the basis for the selection, with the critical merit as judged by an editor being as important as record sales when choosing what gets played. This would create something truly worth watching for not that much a cost, and certainly a striking alternative to the plethora of commercial music channels.

The Fourth Programme

BBC4 is much now like I’d ever imagine it should be and I’d like to see it continue in this current guise, as a mixture of The Third Programme, Radio 3 and the original BBC2 – a place to nourish the superior mind, the refined artistic pallet and give a view with a somewhat more international edge. I see little to change, other than perhaps giving it a larger budget and longer hours.

During the day BBC4 would be home to schools programmes and programmes for college. The rest of the time could be filled with music and photographs or images.

Children, Sports, and the ‘i’

Across this new collective of stations, would live Sport and Children’s programming. Rather than combine them in their own little niches, I would spread the contents into the schedules of the four main networks where they would settle somewhere appropriate – Football on BBC2, Wimbledon on BBC1, Darts on BBC3, and so on. Moreover, interactive video streams would allow these programme categories to be lumped together and have extra material added. The CBBC channel would be scrapped and replaced with a CBBC section on BBCi, with links to all the CBBC branded material across the 4 channels plus at least one video stream showing something during the day. Sports coverage would no longer have to be a headache for the schedulers or the non-sports fans again as lengthy coverage of any event could be accessible from the interactive streams, with only highlights or important games ever needing to be shown on the actual channels themselves.

Repeats too would work in a similar way. As with Sports and Children, the channel will form the starting point of a particular programme or event and then the interactive service will link to repeats or additional information. In time this should be complemented by video-on-demand and internet ‘view again’ services, eventually integrated into our television sets themselves. With this in mind, the four-channel structure could be maintained as the starting point from which a lot more can be developed.

What’s Left

With The CBBC Channel scrapped, This leaves BBC Parliament, BBC News 24 and CBeebies. I would keep all of these, but because they are useful as stand-alone channels providing a very specialist service, rather than something to be developed further. The core of investment and interest I see going in BBCs 1-4, which these would support rather than rival.

I have faith that BBC TV will have its multichannel heyday in the end, but how close to my dream it will be, remains to be seen. I will be watching with a great deal of fascination.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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