Digital television has to be seen to be believed in

BBC4 is making some great programmes. Pity they're not being promoted, says Dennis Marks
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The Independent Online

I had better begin by declaring an interest. I am probably a world expert in producing programmes for channels and slots which fall off the edge of the ratings table. As a film-maker in the early days of Channel Four, I remember late-night discussions which scored a resounding zero in the ratings (Jictar) charts. Then, as an executive in the BBC Music and Arts department, I recall the opening months of The Late Show, with audiences that barely scraped six figures. I know what it's like to broadcast to viewers who are scarcely there. But I also know the dangers of rushing to judgement. After six months of press hysteria, I witnessed Sir Jeremy Isaacs build solid audience loyalties which made the channel he created indispensable. I saw how Michael Jackson's cool head proved you don't require six million viewers to set the cultural agenda.

I had better begin by declaring an interest. I am probably a world expert in producing programmes for channels and slots which fall off the edge of the ratings table. As a film-maker in the early days of Channel Four, I remember late-night discussions which scored a resounding zero in the ratings (Jictar) charts. Then, as an executive in the BBC Music and Arts department, I recall the opening months of The Late Show, with audiences that barely scraped six figures. I know what it's like to broadcast to viewers who are scarcely there. But I also know the dangers of rushing to judgement. After six months of press hysteria, I witnessed Sir Jeremy Isaacs build solid audience loyalties which made the channel he created indispensable. I saw how Michael Jackson's cool head proved you don't require six million viewers to set the cultural agenda.

This is why I am more than a little worried by the recent report by Professor Patrick Barwise to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) on the performance and the future of the BBC's digital channels. Try this for size: "Reclassify BBC3 and BBC4 as mainstream mixed-genre channels." Or how about: "Broaden the appeal of BBC4 by making it more like Radio 4 than Radio 3; more selective about showing arts and other programmes which virtually no one watches?"

An odd judgement, when Radio 3 has repeatedly scooped up a bushel of awards for such imaginative strands as Late Junction and Between the Ears and still held its own against unprecedented competition. If recent history is anything to go by, BBC TV commissioning editors might be less courageous. They may have commissioned Jonathan Miller's Brief History of Disbelief but, despite the twenty seven awards they have won since the channel went on air, my recent experience is that they are drifting away from ideas and taking refuge once again in safe story-telling.

My concerns are anything but academic. I have delivered eight films to BBC digital channels in the past four years. BBC digital strategy matters to me as a producer, a consumer and, in a small way, as a former policy maker. Reading extracts from the report in The Independent, saying that BBC4 offers "poor value for money" and that the channel should be "more pragmatic about what works and what does not", doesn't make my breakfast any more digestible. But there is something odd in Professor Barwise's study. Although he is a professor of marketing, selling and promotion hardly figure in his report. When Sainsbury's figures start flat-lining, they don't change their suppliers. They look at how their products are displayed and stocked. Surely the author of Winning and Keeping Customers by Delivering What Matters Most should have something to tell us about how to sell television programmes.

Consider my own experience. Every time I have asked for specific publicity for BBC4 films, the press officers have told me, with regret, that this is impossible. There is no lack of commitment on their part. But a couple of years back the BBC introduced a policy which set strict priorities for press and promotion. A handful of programmes are given saturation coverage. The rest are left to fend for themselves. Those independents who can afford it hire their own publicists. The remainder slide into invisibility. This is compounded by BBC4's eccentric scheduling. Although they produced a skilful trailer for my series All the Russias, the channel was unable to commit to a slot until a month before transmission. As a result, it missed the press deadlines. How is BBC4, in Barwise's words, to "increase its impact" and "broaden its appeal" if audiences are unable to find the programmes?

I am more encouraged by the professor's proposed cure for the BBC's digital ills. He suggests they should "broaden the appeal of BBC4 by giving it more resources". No one would argue with that. The hourly spend for the channel is less than half of what is granted to its terrestrial cousins. We could all do with bigger budgets, particularly my colleagues who cannot afford a camera and a cameraman. The DCMS might care to wait for BBC4 to be adequately funded and promoted before pursuing the report's more apocalyptic recommendations.

Barwise's comments on content are occasionally pertinent. He shrewdly questions the amount of time devoted to classical concerts and observes that "in general, people don't want to sit in front of television watching concerts". I have to agree. He praises The Genius of Mozart, where the populist drama documentaries should have been on BBC1 and the accompanying workshops on BBC2, instead of BBC2 and BBC4 respectively. But he fails to draw the obvious conclusion - that programmes about music serve the audience more effectively than radio concerts with pictures. Furthermore, he neglects to marshal his expertise where it matters. The BBC is brilliant at branding, particularly when it is branding itself, rather than its programmes. If only they could exercise the same skill (and invest the same funding) in pointing the audience at their most adventurous output. Radio 3 can do it.

Earlier this year, I was responsible for two programmes celebrating the Czech composer Janacek. My BBC4 film with singer Ian Bostridge would have sunk without trace if the two of us hadn't placed articles in the national press. "Janacek Day" on Radio 3 drew a far larger audience than its BBC4 sibling. Perhaps, if Professor Barwise were to mount a few executive seminars in White City on how to create impact and salience through proper marketing, he would do controllers, programme makers and audiences a huge service, and protect a distinguished output into the bargain.

Dennis Marks was the former head of music, BBC Television

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