Twin dilemma 

19 August 2011

Much has been said this week about proposed cutbacks that may (or may not) affect BBC Four, the ‘highbrow’ digital TV channel that has a relatively small but fiercely loyal core audience. But would the bulk of BBC Four’s content be better off serving a much larger potential audience on BBC Two instead?

On top of this there are continuing arguments swirling around BBC Three that for various reasons never seem to go away; for one thing, it doesn’t help that BBC Three targets a specific age range unlike BBC Four which just concentrates on doing what it does to the best of its ability.

This consequentially leaves the bulk of the audience cold as to the true worth of BBC Three unless someone takes the time and effort to point it out to them without being patronising.

Of course if cutbacks have to be made somewhere for financial reasons then something somewhere has to give along the way, creating intense pressure upon the BBC to thoroughly defend what it wants to keep, hence some inevitable comparisons between BBC Three and BBC Four.

BBC Four suffers from the same problem that BBC2 had in the 1960s and for much of the ’70s; a perception of being niche to the point of being unfairly ignored by many people, meaning that the same programming on a different channel (i.e. BBC1) could attract a much larger audience if deemed suitable under the circumstances.

Justifying the continuation of such a ‘niche’ channel should go hand in hand with plans with dealing with what is nowadays regarded as a ‘problem child’ by some, namely what to do with BBC Two, but we need clear assurances and a future action plan as opposed to vague promises and ideas. We need to hear the positives along with the negatives.

If BBC Four were to be scaled back for financial reasons, we need significant reassurances that the channel’s high values and original content will somehow continue on BBC Two undiluted, and this will inevitably lead to clashes and conflict with what’s already shown on BBC Two, notably a consequential drop in ratings.

BBC Four does many good things that will be difficult – but perhaps not impossible – to squeeze onto BBC Two, and how this is done will make all the difference. Not just the continuation of a fine line of ‘docudramas’ like the acclaimed The Road to Coronation Street, but also accommodating foreign language imports like Spiral and The Killing.

Also little has so far been said about another notable reason for scaling back the ambitions of BBC Four, namely that it (like BBC Three) still has no high definition channel of its own, which in turn limits the amount of channel content that can be simulcast in HD on the BBC HD channel.

With the increasing prevalence of HD content, anything arts-related on BBC Four will inevitably look second rate compared to something like Sky Arts HD, and with more HD content being commissioned for both BBC Two and Three, BBC HD will find it increasingly more difficult to feature all the new BBC Four productions.

Therefore it’s easy to see why a greater reliance on archive content is now being openly considered: less HD content for simulcasting along with saving money in the process, so opponents to the BBC Four scale back will have to somehow deal with (or openly ignore) this problem as a consequence.

If the BBC was like almost any other broadcaster, it would have launched HD versions of BBC Three and BBC Four on satellite and cable platforms similar to what ITV has done with an initially exclusive-to-Sky deal for its ITV2/3/4 HD services.

But the BBC has wisely more or less stuck to a platform parity policy, meaning that Freeview has to be treated equally to rival satellite and cable platforms, although there has already been a technical breach of this policy in Scotland with BBC Alba, both before and after the removal of key digital radio services on Freeview for this service.

Indeed the BBC ended up with two HD channels on Freeview almost purely by accident, since it was originally allocated only one HD channel, with the second being the channel originally allocated for Channel 5 but subsequently abandoned due to financial reasons.

This dates back to the dying days of the period when RTL owned Channel 5, when its parent company was perhaps much more interested in offloading a troublesome “English patient” as opposed to investing in a terrestrial free-to-air HD channel slot that had a not insignificant price tag.

(You would have thought that the BBC could have claimed a second channel given its privileged licence fee-funded position but perhaps illustrated anti-BBC sentiment amongst government ministers when proposals were initially drafted.)

There’s also a fifth allocated HD channel on the same mux – channel bitrates already take into account this allocation so there won’t thankfully be a further deterioration in picture quality – which will be used by the BBC as a “red button” service during the 2012 Olympics but sold off afterwards.

It’s very unlikely that the BBC will be able to claim this fifth channel unless there is some form of additional intervention, and even if the BBC could afford to bid a ‘market value’ for the channel itself (extremely unlikely!) there would be questions asked as to whether it would represent the best use of financial resources under current conditions.

Then of course there’s BBC Three, the channel that everyone else (namely, those who don’t usually watch it) loves to hate. It’s easy to claim that BBC Three is a great idea on paper that has been hobbled through a lack of resources, especially when original productions for its specific target audience are often so expensive to produce.

Of course there may be a tipping point when BBC Three is so underfunded that its effectiveness should then be brought into question, and this is on top the growing disadvantage of having no dedicated HD channel as with BBC Four.

Whether BBC Three’s young and fickle audience will be swayed by the delights of HD content on other channels in the future remains to be seen, but for the time being the high volume of repeats actually works in its favour, especially given the continuing popularity of repeat-laden channels such as Dave on Freeview that aren’t (yet) in HD.

Any remit that dictates a high percentage of domestically-originated productions inevitably results in a high volume of repeats when significant financial constraints are applied, hence all the repeats of Doctor Who, Little Britain, Top Gear, etc., to fill up the rest of the schedule.

However there have been several notable programming achievements such as Our War (about soldiers serving in Afghanistan), Being Human, Gavin and Stacey, Little Britain, etc., along with extensive dedicated Edinburgh and Glastonbury Festival coverage amongst other events.

This is on top of a selection of original productions that have, to be frank, unfortunately shouty but eye-catching titles designed to appeal to an allegedly fickle target audience, eg. Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum, which superficially aren’t exactly a million miles away from the sort of cheap reality TV filler Channel 4 churns out on a regular basis.

And it’s precisely this comparison that makes BBC Three a very easy target for its critics regardless of any public service value, and such a hard sell compared to BBC Four; a channel that would perhaps have the ringing endorsement of Lord Reith if he was still around today.

All things considered, any channel that regularly outperforms all but the five ‘main’ UK TV channels has to be taken seriously despite any other perceived weaknesses, therefore it’s up to the BBC to better build a case for BBC Three in order to justify, preserve and protect its current achievements. Not an easy task by any measure.

Defending BBC Three goes beyond the mere intention of justifying a TV licence fee to a generation that’s now getting used to obtaining a fair amount of content for free – regardless of the legalities involved – so value for money has never been more important. (That claimed 4.8% share of 16-34 year-olds needs to be totally justifiable.)

There again, many people may still be willing to dip their hands into their pockets for quality drama such as Doctor Who and Sherlock, but with the continuing loss of major sporting events such as cricket and Formula 1, will people honestly be prepared to pay a TV licence fee for something like Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum?

A very awkward question with no easy answer in sight, but it’s an issue that the BBC will be very foolish to ignore given the stakes involved, and something they really can’t afford to screw up in a similar fashion to the previous proposal to close the 6 Music radio station.

If you wish to ‘save’ BBC Four from the cutbacks there’s a petition you can sign here, which is worth signing even if only to show the BBC that they really have to fully justify everything they plan to do to their channels.

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