When a big review is published, like the recent one on BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4 undertaken by the BBC Trust, it can take a little while to figure out what is being said behind the regulatory language.

For instance, what does this mean: “We will amend BBC Four’s service licence to reflect more clearly its editorial direction and focus.”

I think we could paraphrase it to say – we’re not sure what BBC4 is for these days, so we’re going to sharpen it up a bit. The Trust then goes on to say one of the main challenges for BBC4 in future is to “secure a greater reputational dividend for the BBC”.

That’s a pretty frank statement to be making about a channel which is really only a “reputational” entity – never mind the ratings, feel the quality.

The strategic rationale for the channel was to secure the cultural high ground, held in radio by Radio 4 and Radio 3. If it isn’t doing that, what is it doing?

BBC4 has enjoyed a licence to be obscure, provided it keeps up a steady flow of awards, favourable press reviews and occasional ratings success.

The channel was launched by Roly Keating in 2002 – he went on to be BBC2 controller in 2004 having set a template of archive programming and some dramatised history. For Janice Hadlow, who followed him, BBC4 was a platform to try out programming ideas, particularly in drama, which have subsequently proved successful on BBC2, where she is now controller.

But now it looks like the Trust has stopped the music and the current controller, Richard Klein, is left holding the parcel.

One specific recommendation in the Trust report caught my eye, as it underlines the gap between the Trust’s view of the channel and the BBC management. “BBC management should explore ways to increase the impact of its world news programme on BBC Four.”

A quick look at the audience for World News Today, the global news programme which is broadcast weeknights on BBC4 at 7pm, reveals what they are concerned about. In the last four weeks, the highest audience achieved by the 30 minute programme was 73,000 viewers/0.36% share, and the lowest was 19,200 viewers/0.09%. In the period, its average audience was 40,000/018% share. And over 56% of that audience were aged over 65 years old.

But I wonder how the Trust thinks it will be possible to increase the impact of the programme, which is actually a BBC World Service news programme presented by Zeinab Badawi, simultaneously broadcast on BBC4 and BBC World Service.

Its remit is international – which puts it at a disadvantage at 7pm to Channel 4 News if the viewer wants a more domestic focus on the day’s news. What makes matters worse for World News Today is having to open the channel’s schedule at 7pm, so it does not benefit from any inheritance, nor does there seem to be any cross-promotional effort at 7pm. Perhaps that is what the Trust really wants – some promos on BBC1 and BBC2 at 7pm, driving people to the BBC4 News.

Of course that is an inherent problem showing a specialised news programme on a digital channel aimed at a niche audience – ask Channel 4, which used to have More4 News until December 2009. Perhaps this has informed the Trust’s thinking – does it see an opportunity to recover some lost ground?

On the other hand, why should viewers turn to BBC4 at 7pm for an in-depth news programme, a time that is effectively owned by Channel 4 News.

Are there any other ways BBC4 could create impact for its World News? By running it in primetime at 8pm or 9pm – not if its 7pm ratings are anything to go by, as it would put a major dent into BBC4’s more mainstream programming.

Between 7pm and 10.30pm in the period from mid October to mid November, BBC4’s average audience was 218,000, 0.98% share.

It can hardly afford to replace a programme such as the quiz Only Connect, which had over 500,000 viewers last Monday at 8pm, with a news programme rating at around a tenth of that at 7pm.

Why invest in a low-rating domestic digital channel at a time when the BBC World Service is being cut back? Why not put more money into the World News itself so that it could make a bigger impact on BBC4.

And once you embark on that line of thinking, you start to wonder why there is not much more traffic between the World Service and BBC4 – there’s a great portfolio of programmes already on the World Service, shouldn’t they have some greater prominence in the UK?

Staff Reporter

Share this story

Share Televisual stories within your social media posts.
Be inclusive: Televisual.com is open access without the need to register.
Anyone and everyone can access this post with minimum fuss.