The s-word 

21 September 2011

One dictionary defines the word synergy as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects”, which in theory sounds impressive on paper until you realise that any “combined effect” might not be the desired one after all.

Problem is, BBC Four as a channel almost revels in its distinctiveness compared to any other BBC television channel – perhaps Radio 4 is its closest neighbour, but that of course is radio – and bears little resemblance to the modern BBC Two, so any plans to bring ‘synergy’ to the two needs to be examined with utmost care and attention.

Of course I’ve mentioned the future of BBC Four before but more in the context of which service(s) are likely to be selected for downsizing above and beyond the 20% target for cutbacks savings across the board, but how other services will also be affected as a consequence has yet to be truly revealed.

When BBC2 started in 1964 it was very similar indeed to what BBC Four is nowadays, but since then it has evolved towards a more populist ‘lifestyle’ remit (Gardeners’ World, Top Gear, even Dragons’ Den), with current affairs, mainstream documentaries and anything else lacking a home elsewhere.

Such a dumping ground strategy created by having newer channels with narrower remits has caused BBC Two to lose some of its identity; up to now this hasn’t been too much of a concern due to its major channel status, but any changes to BBC Four will reflect back to BBC Two and what it does, or much more pertinently in this case, what it doesn’t do.

Nothing has yet been hinted as to how BBC Two will cope if BBC Four is downgraded, and even though it’s easy to see that (a) the BBC might want to keep the exact details secret, and (b) its plans still seem to be in a worrying state of flux, the very absence of any speculation aside of a calculated 2% ratings drop is disconcerting to say the least.

Indeed that 2% figure was mentioned solely in connection to removing programmes from daytime BBC Two, perhaps with a News Channel simulcast to fill the gap, with nothing whatsoever to suggest what any impact of moving any BBC Four programming to the channel might have.

At the moment we’re only being exposed to part of the picture, so to speak, and although the BBC says that nothing official has been announced yet, there have been numerous “official leaks” (or “trial balloons” if you must) as official attempts to gauge public reaction are made before any axe is wielded in the direction of public broadcasting services.

But unless the public is fully informed as to BBC management’s intentions it’s effectively useless to make sensible judgements, hence that online petition to “Save BBC Four” later provoking a BBC response along the lines of “We weren’t going to close the channel down altogether”…

Therefore how can we, the TV licence fee payers, be expected to make an informed decision about pressuring advising BBC management into a particular course of action?

At the moment the BBC still appears to be half-hearted and dithering as to its public policy, which doesn’t inspire confidence at all, because there are still many more questions than answers and there’s still not enough information for any outsiders to guess the right answer to whatever this week’s question happens to be.

Will BBC Four’s foreign language crime series (Spiral, The Killing) vanish altogether? Will there still be the strong overall commitment to documentaries that helped BBC Four gain nine Grierson documentary award nominations (out of 40, an astonishing achievement) over the past year?

It’s easy to envisage something like Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe moving to a late slot on BBC Two (and Only Connect moving to a teatime slot), but what about series like Hidden Paintings or Michael Wood’s Story of England? Will Storyville either stay where it is, moved back to BBC Two, or cancelled altogether instead?

Some things may inevitably vanish given cutbacks, but it may be better to sacrifice something derivative like “Escape to the Country” if it means something like “Chemistry: A Volatile History” being produced in its place, even if it only gets a third of the viewers.

Whether we can currently trust the BBC to make the correct decisions – with or without BBC Trust influence – is another matter altogether, and an absence of enough information to make informed choices as to exactly how service(s) will be affected doesn’t exactly inspire that much confidence in the process even if it’s still meant to be ‘secret’.

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