Tina Stowell Associates

We need to focus on what the BBC is for, not just on BBC Four

August 17th, 2011 | Posted in Uncategorized

Yesterday MediaGuardian reported that BBC Four would be the main casualty of the BBC’s budget cuts: its schedule and range of genres are to be “scaled back”, making it a shadow of its current self.  I’ve no idea if the wonderful Tara Conlan’s  report was inspired by an official bit of kite-flying or someone ‘in the know’ doing a bit of free-lancing, but it’s certainly generated a lot of comment and concern amongst BBC Four fans.

Indeed, in a pithy blogpost on Huffington Post, my old friend and erstwhile colleague David Skelton (now Deputy Director of the thinktank Policy Exchange) makes all the relevant points about the quality and distinctiveness of BBC Four; why it is such an important part of what the BBC exists to do; reminds us of the 6Music debacle; and demands the Corporation think again.

I can understand that kind of reaction.  On the face of it, this decision (if true) doesn’t make sense.  Why spoil and effectively ditch the service that so clearly represents the core purpose of the BBC and is so obviously not available elsewhere?  But – and please hear me out on this – it could actually be a sensible decision if, and it is a big if, the BBC can convince us that what they are planning  instead will not only protect but strengthen the BBC’s delivery of the kind of programmes we currently find and love on BBC Four.

Many people have argued in the past that BBC Four is what BBC Two should be and that those two channels struggle to sit alongside each other because they have similar remits.  Some would go as far to say that the existence of BBC Four gives BBC Two an excuse not to be the serious channel it should be.  If it helps to give this some perspective and context compare BBC Four to Radio 4: axing Radio 4 would create an apocalypse because there is no alternative; no other BBC radio network exists to do a similar job; the same is not true for BBC Four.

Therefore, I would be interested and willing to listen to what a new BBC Two would look like if its purpose was to offer the kind of programming that currently sits on BBC Four. Or if you like, if BBC Two were to become BBC Four.  Especially if – and at the same time – BBC One became home to some of the ‘popular docs’ currently on BBC Two and if BBC Three really stepped up to the plate in serving young audiences (ie, has a schedule which doesn’t rely on movies and repeats of EastEnders). Put simply, if the management tell us what they are trying to achieve, it’s a 21st century version of the Reithian purpose, and they come up with a coherent plan to deliver it, I am all ears and I’d like to think many others would be too.

I have to admit that the BBC’s got recent form for selecting the wrong service for the chop, so people’s confidence in the BBC making the right decision when it’s got to make savings is pretty low.  I think my friends and former colleagues at the BBC know this, but I hope in reaching their final decision they understand that the most important thing they need to do in light of that low public confidence is not blindly to save every single service, but to present us with a plan for the future that makes sense.   A plan that is so clearly going to deliver quality programmes with real purpose for all its audiences that – even if it takes us a bit of time to get used to the change – we will be prepared to give it a go.

As to everyone who is jumping up and down about BBC Four and pushing BBC Three forward for the axe instead I would just say this: after last week’s events I think that, now more than ever, we need a focussed BBC Three and Radio1 committed to serving young audiences with programmes with real purpose.  When they do their public service job properly they are incredibly powerful and important.

In short, the BBC can fulfil its responsibility to everyone by doing its – always current, never out-of-date – inform, educate and entertain thing with a reduced licence fee and fewer channels and what we should be demanding is it do just that.  In other words, what’s important is what the BBC is for, and that’s not just BBC Four.

As to the BBC, I would simply say this: please don’t let us down.