After months of public debate over the merits of launching BBC-backed digital channels, the British government has formally approved three new services, as well as five radio networks. BBC4 – which will feature ‘culturally enriching programs, tackling new and unfamiliar themes in factual programs and documentaries’ – is one of the proposed digital television channels given two thumbs up. Two children’s channels have also been approved.
Roly Keating, controller of digital nets and arts commissioning for the BBC, says popular doc strand ‘Storyville’ will likely move to BBC4 from BBC Knowledge, and continue under the leadership of Nick Fraser. Says Keating, ‘If BBC4 happens to the extent that we want, the channel will become known as a place where the very best of international documentary is premiered on British television.’ He adds BBC4 will be scouting for content from indie producers. ‘Across the BBC channels as a whole we’ll be more than hitting our commitments to the independent sector.’
One-offs rather than series will be BBC4′s preference, at least in the first few years, Keating notes. ‘We won’t expect our audiences necessarily to make a date for a four or six-part series very easily. We’d rather concentrate on a constant flow of exciting one-off factual and performance pieces. Obviously, within the mix there will be some series and within the structure of the channel as a whole there will be some regular slots, but in terms of independent production and acquisition we’ve been focusing thus far on single pieces.’
Approval of the digichannels, including BBC4, is not welcome news to everyone. Several commercial satellite and cable broadcasters have expressed concern about the BBC’s expansion, arguing that the pubcaster is encroaching on turf already covered by existing, albeit young, channels. Of course, the underlying issue is whether the new public channels will put some of the commercial nets out of business.
John Hambley, chief executive of Artsworld, says, ‘We have to make commercial decisions. The BBC doesn’t. The BBC can decide that it will spend, if it wants to, £200 million on a marketing campaign… That’s one of the reasons why the private sector is so concerned about the BBC being able to compete with channels that already exist, because it’s not competing on equal terms.’
Perhaps one small victory for the commercial sector is the government’s decision to withhold approval of BBC3, a proposed digichannel aimed at the youth market. No commissions had yet been made for BBC3.