Rivals raise an eyebrow as Auntie goes highbrow

Will the show go on for other digital arts channels when BBC4 takes to the air?
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The Independent Online

When the BBC's new digital culture channel, BBC4, is launched next month, wisdom has it that rival arts networks will be chewing their nails.

Just as Nickelodeon and Disney objected loudly to the BBC's two new children's services, broadcasters such as Artsworld, founded by former Channel 4 boss Jeremy Isaacs, and Performance complained vehemently about the BBC's rival plans for the arts.

The BBC's ambitions were one expansion too many, they said, one call on the public purse too far. The fear, sometimes stated, sometimes implied, was that the BBC would threaten their income – for no public service benefit.

In return, the BBC was clear why it wanted to go ahead. As Greg Dyke, the director general, explained in a lecture at the Edinburgh Festival two years ago, it would be inadequate in the digital age for the UK's national broadcaster to provide only two mixed- genre channels.

Its new children's channels (CBBC and Cbeebies, which launch next week), BBC3 for youth (not yet sanctioned by the Government), and BBC4 (an "unashamedly intellectual" mixture of Radios 3 and 4 on television) would serve its audience better, Mr Dyke said.

With four weeks to go to BBC4's launch date of 2 March, quite how "unashamedly intellectual" it will be is starting to emerge. Though the full schedule will not be released until 14 February, highlights are already known to include a specially filmed-for-TV version of Hamlet, starring Adrian Lester and directed by Peter Brook. Simon Callow's performance as Charles Dickens in a stage play by Peter Ackroyd, first seen in London's West End two years ago, will also be shown. And Ewen Bremner, who first emerged as Spud in Trainspotting, will play the artist Salvador Dali in a dramatisation of the time when he fell out with other members of the Surrealist movement.

There are plans for a new arts magazine programme and a books programme in which authors take questions from the public. The great Australian critic Robert Hughes has been lined up to present programmes on the artist Goya and there will be concerts by people such as the African performer Baaba Maal. It is said there will be a major opera performance or concert every Sunday night.

However, channel insiders are also keen to stress that the nightly (7pm to 1am) service will provide much more than arts. It will have a strong "global" feel, including the best of foreign cinema and international news and documentaries. BBC4 will be the first channel to have a news service focusing on foreign coverage. It will be presented by George Alagiah, who has proclaimed himself delighted at the prospect, and Kirsty Lang, poached from Channel 4.

So where does this leave the BBC's rivals? Are they still nervously trying to second-guess Roly Keating, BBC4's controller?

Artsworld chief executive John Hambley, who charges subscribers £6 a month, is insistent that he does not now consider BBC4 a challenge. "I don't think it's going to affect us very much. It's not an arts channel, although the BBC is trying to conceal this fact," he says, briskly. The mix of global news, philosophy, science, current affairs and music makes it very different from Artsworld, Mr Hambley claims.

That is not to say he is happy with BBC4. In recent months the BBC been keen to stress that the Government wants to "drive" digital take-up in order to be able to switch off the analogue signal and make a killing on the ensuing sell-off of the spare spectrum. BBC executives argue that BBC4, and its other digital services, will do that – and say this will be good for its competitors too, because it will introduce multi-channel television to people who might think they are not interested.

Mr Hambley thinks this is rubbish. "The BBC's digital channels [currently BBC Choice and Knowledge] get diddly-squat of the audience and the idea that they are going to revolutionise take-up of digital is nonsense," he says.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, has made it clear to the BBC that the new service should not be an excuse to shunt arts out of the mainstream, but Mr Hambley still believes the BBC is failing to encourage public interest in the arts – an interest which might genuinely stimulate demand for services like his own.

"What the BBC should be doing is putting a wider diversity of programmes on BBC1 and BBC2 where everybody can see them, and not putting them in a ghetto. It can't help us if the BBC promotes the idea that the arts are for tiny minorities."

Like everyone in the commercial sector, he is particularly cross about the BBC's expansion on the back of above-inflation increases in the licence fee at a time when business is suffering. (The BBC, in return, believes it cannot be blamed for the drop in advertising revenues.)

" This is absolutely skewing the relationship between the private and public sector," Mr Hambley says.

Maybe he is more nervous than he is admitting. Another of the rival services thinks he should be. Chris Hunt, chief executive of Digital Classics TV, which broadcasts nightly for £4.99 a month, thinks BBC4 will make it very tough for stand-alone niche channels.

"Artsworld can't compete against the buying power of the BBC," he says. "And the cross-promotion and advertising for BBC4's launch is probably more than Artsworld can spend on its entire operation in a year. It just ain't fair."

Yet Mr Hunt claims to be fairly upbeat about the new channel himself because his business is built on a different model. Where Artsworld buys in all its programming, Digital Classics TV is an offshoot business of Iambic, an independent production company which has been making programmes in music, arts and drama since 1985, including a film of Trevor Nunn's production of the musical Oklahoma! and The Abba Story for ITV, which gained 11 million viewers when broadcast.

Its television channel draws on this back catalogue of work and also on a catalogue owned by Warner Music Group, to which it has negotiated exclusive access. It is very different, Mr Hunt says, from being a niche channel wholly dependent on subscribers for business.

"We can't argue that BBC4 is a bad thing. To us it's a good thing because we're co-producing programmes with them and making programmes for them. The net effect on our company of the existence of BBC4 is highly profitable. We win on the swings of production and distribution but lose on the roundabout of subscribers. That's not a disaster."

Mr Hunt's confidence comes even though the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television is routinely scathing about the poor deals that independent producers are able to negotiate with the BBC.

"The companies that have a television channel as part of a larger strategy will prosper," he says. "For those that haven't, it's not going to be easy."