BBC’s “digital first” plan to result in closure of linear channels BBC Four and CBBC

A “digital first” strategy for UK pubcaster the BBC, unveiled today (May 26) by its director-general Tim Davie (pictured), will result in the closure of its smaller linear channels, such ...
May 26, 2022

A “digital first” strategy for UK pubcaster the BBC, unveiled today (May 26) by its director-general Tim Davie (pictured), will result in the closure of its smaller linear channels, such as BBC Four, CBBC and Radio 4 Extra, in the next few years.

The plan, first delivered to BBC staff in a speech from Davie, will also bring about approximately 1,000 job losses within the public-funded divisions of the BBC over the same period of time.

The first phase of the strategy represents £500 million of annual savings and reinvestment to make the BBC digital-led, with £200 million set to contribute to the £285 million annual funding gap — created by the licence fee settlement earlier this year that saw the fee frozen at £159 for the next two years — by 2027/28. The remaining funding gap will be covered in the final three years of the current BBC royal charter period.

The organization is also planning to reinvest £300 million to “drive a digital-first approach, through changes to content and output and additional commercial income.” That will mean significant shifting of funding into new programs for the BBC’s iPlayer, “which will also attract extra third-party investment on screen,” as well as shifting resources in local output towards digital, investing savings from broadcast news into video and digital news, and investing up to £50 million a year in product development.

Another significant change on the news front for the pubcaster is the plan to create a single, 24-hour TV news channel serving UK and international audiences. The channel, to be called BBC News, will “[offer] greater amounts of shared content [while] maintaining the ability to offer separate broadcasts depending on what’s happening at home and abroad.” The plan also calls for a larger investment in programming from the nations and regions across the UK.

Davie said that a key goal of the digital-first initiative is to reach 75% of BBC viewers through the iPlayer service.

“When I took this job I said that we needed to fight for something important: public service content and services, freely available universally, for the good of all,” said Davie in his speech to staff. “This fight is intensifying, the stakes are high.

“This is our moment to build a digital-first BBC,” he added. “Independent, impartial, constantly innovating and serving all. A fresh, new, global digital media organization which has never been seen before.”

The two linear channels that are to be phased out, BBC Four and CBBC, were both introduced in 2002. Launched with the tagline “Everyone needs a place to think,” BBC Four is the home of the renowned documentary strand ‘Storyville’ and also presents a range of arts, culture, music and science programming as well as original and imported drama. CBBC, meanwhile, is the pubcaster’s linear children’s channel, serving ages 6 to 17.

While the news of moving CBBC online comes as a surprise, BBC Four’s future as a free-to-air channel has been cloudy for a couple of years. Reports circulated in 2020 that the channel was set to be on the chopping block, resulting in outcry from viewers and presenters alike. In early 2021, in a bid to cut costs, it was announced that the commissioning model for BBC Four would shift “away from commissioning a high volume of lower cost programs” and would move towards becoming the home for the pubcaster’s vast archive of content.

Beyond the channel closures, Davie’s speech also pointed to changes that will impact the entire BBC roster, and the UK production sector.

“When it comes to network TV, we will reduce the volume of hours we commission a year by around 200,” he said. “We’ll still offer thousands of originated hours and a very broad range, but fewer hours will mean we are not constantly thinning program budgets.

“We will focus our money where we are distinctive and more uniquely BBC,” he added. “We will make tough choices about titles which may be performing on linear but are not doing enough to drive viewers to on-demand. A number of them will be cancelled this year. Importantly, higher-impact content will attract more investment from third parties to make our money go further.”

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.