In March 2012 BBC4 will be ten years old. At this stage it’s hard to know whether a celebration or a wake will be more in order.
A glance at this week’s schedules reveals a typically winning line-up, including 1) a documentary about bell-ringers; 2) a history of trams; and 3) a film about Public Enemy. Would any other TV channel run the gamut from bell-ringers to 1980s hip-hop?
It’s fare like this that has made the channel a firm favourite among RT readers. And they are not alone. You might imagine the sort of magpie schedule BBC4 offers makes for a declining audience share, but you’d be wrong. Its percentage of viewing has risen by 65 per cent in the last three years. Not bad in a TV world everyone agrees is as murderously competitive as Frozen Planet’s polar bears in spring.
So surely the BBC’s powers-that-be will be looking to reward the channel’s stellar track record? Top executives must even now be looking for ways to build on its remarkable success? Er, no. As I flagged up here a few months ago, the axe is in fact hovering over BBC4. Not to close the channel altogether (though that was under consideration at one stage) but to cut its budget by around 10 per cent.
That’s not so bad, is it? In the outside world libraries and hospitals and aircraft carriers are under threat. Why should BBC4 be immune? Well, before you breathe a sigh of relief, that 10 per cent is deceptive. That’s the percentage of the channel’s overall budget. But because all the savings are coming from original programming the cuts to what you’ll see on screen will be nearer 26-27 per cent. That’s not a haircut, that’s major surgery.
Under the proposals, history programmes will be out, gone. Religion, business and current affairs (think of this summer’s excellent season on Aghanistan) bite the dust. There will be no more original drama. Instead, the channel’s brief will be to “play a more complementary role to BBC2”, focusing on arts, music and culture.
To those who love it, the channel’s rich character will be wrecked. Scanning the BBC4 schedules can feel a little like you have wandered into a curiosity shop full of grainy but well-kept treasures. You never know what you’ll stumble on next – a programme on canals or quantum physics. The Thick of It or The Joy of Stats. Well, not anymore, not if these cuts go through.
There will be no more of those brilliant biographical dramas (Hattie, Lennon Naked, and so on). The wonderful history series presented by personable academics (like Lucy Worsley’s Elegance and Decadence – the Age of the Regency) will only be allowed if they’re smuggled in as arts programmes. Put simply, the very things BBC4 has done best are being snatched away. Instead of rewarding success, the cuts punish it.
If this all makes you boil with rage, don’t suppress it, have your say. As Public Enemy themselves said, “We got to fight the power,” though they may not have envisaged doing so via a BBC Trust consultation website.
When RT sounded the alarm back in August we got an incredible response, including more than 1,000 letters from protesting readers. Now is the time to direct that strength of feeling at the Trust, which is consulting on the cuts at bbc.co.uk/bbctrust. Or send your views to Radio Times and we’ll pass them on.
You have until 21 December to have your say.
Not every broadcaster is cutting back on the kind of programming BBC4 stands for. Sky Arts sees gold in the highbrow hills and is looking to triple its budgets and expand into drama and comedy. If it seems bizarre to you that pay-TV should be shoring up quality programming while the BBC undermines its best-loved channel, you’re not alone.
￼￼￼Speak out – let us know your views on the future of BBC4 by emailing us or posting in the comment box below.