BBC4: Boon or Bane?

Roly Keating,
October 1, 2001

Roly Keating, controller of digital channels and arts commissioning, BBC

What is the rationale behind BBC4?

As a public service broadcaster, BBC4 is absolutely essential territory where we believe we can do and offer more. It’s always been in our mind that the digital opportunity allows us to give more in terms of serious documentary, performance and intelligent speech programming than we have ever been able to do with just two analog mainstream channels.

How will BBC4 impact commercial digicasters?

I would argue that BBC4 will [eventually] play a decisive role in bringing new audiences into digital, many of whom, not all, will be potential subscribers for premium specialist channels like Artsworld. Without that, I do not see how those businesses can grow. We’re already seeing an element of slowdown in the growth of the digital audience here, and it seems at least plausible that the advent of well funded public service channels, strongly cross-promoted on analog television, will be one of the most effective ways to kick-start the growth of digital.

Will BBC4 be an arts channel?

On BBC4, arts will be one of a number, certainly in the factual domain, of genres. You can expect to see a mix of all the specialist genres the BBC is known for, including science, history, current affairs, politics and religion, alongside arts. There will be an element of music, performance and theater on BBC4, probably not more than twice a week, in strong distinction to a channel like Performance, for instance, which has performance every night. We believe with BBC4 we can do more than we’ve ever been able to with our analog channels, but we certainly can’t compete with a dedicated arts channel.

John Hambley, chief executive, Artsworld

How do you feel about the BBC’s proposed digital channels?

For the BBC to request more public money to launch more channels, in direct competition with channels that already exist in the marketplace, is not appropriate for either public funds or a public broadcaster. The BBC is already by far the biggest broadcasting empire in the U.K. and has three kinds of channels: BBC1 and BBC2, which are universally available; a number of wholly owned digital channels; and a number of excellent channel partnerships with people like Discovery, Flextech and so on. We think those three ways of creating channels for the state-funded broadcaster are the right ones.

The BBC contends that its digital entries may encourage viewers to convert.

Complete and utter nonsense. Nobody other than the BBC believes that these new channels will increase digital takeup. When the government set out its guidelines for the assessment of the BBC’s proposals, the question of whether they would or would not drive digital takeup was not an issue at all. This is the BBC’s propaganda line, that these channels will do a wonderful favor to us all, but the truth is they won’t. What they’ll do is compete for what is already a narrow audience, and which is already being catered to – sometimes by quite new and young channels like mine – by the private sector.

The BBC also claims BBC4 will have a broader mandate than just arts.

These, to an extent, are weasel words. It is possible to put on a channel that has a number of different categories of program, like BBC2, but still stuff its primetime with arts performances. This is an arts channel. Is Roly in charge of music and arts? Yes, he is. Is he in charge of this channel? Yes, he is. The BBC can claim as much as it likes that this channel somehow has a broader remit, but it is not necessary. BBC2 and BBC1 are there to provide the public with opportunities to see as much arts as the bbc wants to put on. It does not need a new channel for the arts.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.