The Culture Secretary has defended the highbrow digital channel BBC4 against criticism that it provides poor value for money, arguing that the corporation should cater to niche interests rather than scramble for audiences.
Giving evidence yesterday to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee inquiry into the renewal of the BBC's royal charter, Tessa Jowell was not entirely positive about the BBC, however, describing the broadcaster's system of governance as "unsustainable".
BBC4, which shows mainly arts and current affairs programmes, and the youth channel BBC3 came under fire last month in an independent report commissioned by the Government, because of their tiny viewing figures. But yesterday Ms Jowell praised BBC4, saying: "Among its devotees, BBC4 is extraordinarily popular."
She added that BBC3, which was criticised in the report by Professor Patrick Barwise for focusing too narrowly on 24- to 35-year-olds, faced a more difficult challenge. "BBC3 has found it harder to define its identity because its challenge is greater. I think it's right to say BBC3 ought to broaden its age range - appeal both down and up. I think you have to give BBC3 rather longer to develop. I think BBC3 has a bigger challenge."
The Culture Secretary said that the BBC's digital channels existed to cater to the diverse interests of licence fee-payers, rather than to attract large audiences. "This is one of the answers to justify BBC4. I believe that one of the BBC's many roles is to service with high-quality programming the interests, enthusiasms and curiosity of the British people."
Professor Barwise raised concerns about the "very low" viewing figures for BBC4, which is watched by just 1.4m a week and criticised the channel for showing programmes which "virtually no one wants to watch".
Ms Jowell said: "One of the facts about digital channels is that we can't measure their value purely in terms of how many people watch them. I think the future will see the growth of niche channels." She added that people wanted to know that arts and religious programmes were being made, even if they did not watch. "If the BBC is only scrambling for audiences, all the pressures are towards the middle ground and away from the distinctiveness of BBC4 and the distinctiveness BBC3 is aspiring to."
The Culture Secretary made it clear that the BBC's board of governors will be overhauled when the corporation's charter is renewed at the end of 2006. The board came in for stinging criticism during the Hutton inquiry for acting as both cheerleaders and regulators.
Ms Jowell welcomed changes to the system of governance introduced by the new chairman Michael Grade, including appointing governors with greater experience of broadcasting. But she added: "We would not regard the status quo as an option that would be acceptable or sustainable for the next charter review."
The Culture Secretary said that the licence fee remained the "default option" to fund the BBC, although the Government was considering a number of alternatives.
The Misses and Hits
'Julie Burchill: Who Killed My Dad'
The documentary by Julie Burchill, left, about her father, who died of asbestos-related cancer, scored zero on the Broadcasters' Audience Research Board's official ratings scale
'The Alan Clark Diaries'
The series charting the life of the former Tory minister, bottom left, became BBC4's hit of the year in January, pulling in a record one million viewers for the first episode. Audiences crashed to just 153,000 by the last.
'Days That Shook The World':
This has been one of the BBC4 successes. The popular series reconstructs the most famous days in modern history.