On repeat: BBC Four has become a place to think about the past. Credit: Maurice Savage/Alamy

Did BBC Four kills the arts on TV?

Moving cultural coverage to the niche—and chronically underfunded—channel might have sealed its fate
April 7, 2022

It began broadcasting at 7pm on 2nd March 2002 with the slogan: “Everybody needs a place to think.” Among BBC Four’s opening-night offerings was a documentary on the artist Michael Landy’s work Break Down, in which the artist destroyed all 7,227 of his possessions. Twenty years on, it seems the BBC has entered its own breakdown, with BBC Four reduced to a home for repeats and occasional filmed performances: a place primarily to think about the past.

In its heyday, BBC Four originated groundbreaking comedy such as The Thick of It, Twenty Twelve and Detectorists, quiz shows like Only Connect, along with admired biopics like The Curse of Steptoe and the Margaret Thatcher drama The Long Walk to Finchley. It became home to the respected Storyville documentary strand and pioneered the showing of European dramas, including Borgen and The Bridge.

BBC Three and Four grew out of the digital-only channels BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge under the aegis of new director-general Greg Dyke, appointed in 2000. An official historian of the BBC, Jean Seaton, notes that “Greg’s reading of the tech future was that he needed to occupy more space on the Electronic Programme Guide, but he didn’t have a vision of [BBC Four] fulfilling a pressing need. He had a vision that he wanted to occupy more room.” She contrasts Dyke with his predecessor as DG, John Birt, who was unpopular with staff but “prescient” in putting the BBC onto new digital platforms.

She compares the launching of BBC Four unfavourably with the creation of BBC Two in 1964. That channel came out of an awareness that competition between BBC One and ITV was resulting in more populist programme-making. “BBC Two, at base, had a technological and philosophical clarity to it that BBC Four didn’t have,” Seaton says.

Yet the BBC showed that it was serious about BBC Four by appointing a senior executive, Roly Keating, as its first controller. “It was seen as prestigious,” one former BBC producer tells me. “It was going to be the home of intelligent thinking and contribute strongly to the BBC’s public service offer.”

The broadcaster had been down this road before when the Third Programme (later Radio 3) came to BBC Radio in 1946. Yet, as former BBC producer Paul Dwyer explains, BBC Four was different. It was “we’re going to take the highbrow and make it popular, and we’re going to take the popular and make it highbrow.” The channel tackled rarely approached subjects in a compelling way, such as in Marcus du Sautoy’s The Story of Maths and Michael Mosley’s history of surgery Blood and Guts. “No one ever figured out how to make opera popular,” admits Dwyer, “but Roly and especially [his successor] Janice Hadlow were fantastic at looking at popular culture in a serious way.”

“They made a good fist of it,” Seaton admits. “Somebody like me, who really likes programmes about art and history, found them there… to some extent BBC Four has been for TV viewers what Radio 4 is for listeners.”

BBC Four gave the corporation a place to put some of the shows deemed “must haves” but dubbed “market failures” inside the organisation such
as the arts. “Arts is not niche exactly,” a former insider explains, “but it just doesn’t figure in the realms of popularity that certain other genres have.”

What tipped the situation into crisis was the return of the Conservatives to power in 2010. The Coalition moved quickly to end Foreign Office funding of the World Service, meaning the BBC had to make cuts of hundreds of millions. (A five-year deal, since extended, restored some of this funding directly to the World Service in 2015.) Also in 2015, chancellor George Osborne forced the BBC to pay for TV licences for over-75s—previously a government-funded perk. DG Tony Hall admitted that it meant “hard choices” would need to be made.

Alongside massive job cuts, the first casualty was the youth-orientated BBC Three, which moved to iPlayer only (it has recently been resurrected as a broadcast channel). But those “hard choices” have never stopped.

It will likely get worse. The culture secretary Nadine Dorries has recently confirmed a government review of the licence fee, which provides the BBC with roughly £3.6bn of its current £5bn annual income. “Dorries is a clear and present danger to the BBC,” a former insider says. Seaton adds: “the BBC always bets on—and I can see [current DG] Tim Davie doing it now—the idea that, ‘if we make wonderful programmes, the government will be nice to us.’ That’s not true.”

While drama and entertainment shows have been protected, others have lost out. “Looking back, I feel it’s quite clear that we’re watching the very slow death of BBC arts coverage, which is really sad,” one BBC presenter, who did not want to be named, tells me.

BBC Four was never exclusively the home of the arts on the BBC. But it had increasingly become the showcase for series that might once have been on BBC Two—or even BBC One, where aside from Alan Yentob’s imagine…, the arts have shrunk to a footnote. The combined arts budget, I’m told, is £22m—half that of 10 years ago—£3m of which goes on televising the annual Proms. The same presenter points out that Hall’s pet project, a follow-up to Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 Civilisation, entitled Civilisations (broadcast on BBC Two in 2018), was “supposed to be Attenborough for the arts, but it didn’t land,” and “hoovered up an insane proportion of the BBC arts budget.” It’s not difficult to imagine this had an impact on the already hard-pressed BBC Four.

But the pressure on budgets had been there from the start. As one former producer puts it: “it had to be very carefully managed, there was a very limited amount of budget to spend on origination... the channel needed to be very savvy about how they used the BBC archive.”

Ultimately this became a problem, especially when the channel needed to find new viewers. “There was this replacement of ‘let’s look at the old Top of the Pops in an intelligent way’ with ‘let’s just put on repeats of Top of the Pops,’” says Dwyer.

“I think there has been a failure of imagination,” says one independent producer who has made several documentaries for BBC Four. “It’s worth noting how much the BBC became a pyramid structure, where everything was referred to the highest authority, and people didn’t take risks, because you had to refer it upwards. People self-censored because they were worried about their jobs, and worried about their survival. I think that’s been a very negative thing.”

Meanwhile, streaming platforms have been moving into the arts space with big budgets and new ideas. BBC Two’s new Andy Warhol’s America, for instance, finds itself in competition with Netflix’s glossy six-parter Andy Warhol’s Diaries, in which the artist’s voice has been computer-generated to read out his own words. Sky, meanwhile, has made its own arts channel available subscription-free on Freeview, and partnered with organisations such as English National Opera and the National Gallery.

The BBC’s Dan McGolpin, who is a senior executive in charge of iPlayer, is having none of it. He points to titles such as Reclaiming Amy or Freddie Mercury: The Final Act and the upcoming eight-part series Art That Made Us, plus “the fact that we are doubling arts spending on BBC Two… We commission more content than anybody else, and across a wider range of programmes... in terms of cultural relevance to people in the UK, I’m not sure you can find that on many other streamers.”

McGolpin says that “we are heading towards another era”—one defined by the migration of viewers from broadcast television, via channels, to “internet-delivered television… That transition is taking a period of time, but that’s the journey we’re on.”

Still, the future of BBC Four looks bleak. The performance offerings seem almost calculated to fulfil Reithian quotas without achieving significant ratings. A new one-man play starring Toby Stephens or a musical work by Nitin Sawhney marking 60 years since the consecration of Coventry Cathedral are surely preaching to the converted.

“The issue of ratings becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy,” says author Jessica Duchen, who has appeared on several BBC Four programmes. “If not enough people are watching a programme about classical music they think, ‘oh well, we can’t prioritise that because more people want other things.’ But that means even fewer will have the chance to discover something that they might really enjoy.”

Indeed, perhaps finding a place on BBC Four for less-watched genres—equivalent to moving them from the shop window to an alcove—has ultimately sealed their downfall. While the channel may have had a lasting impact—the influence of dark “Scandi” drama on homegrown shows has been immense—its legacy may turn out to have been a marginalisation of some genres to the point where arguments can be made for dispensing with them altogether.