What a turn-off: BBC's digital channels

Criticism of the BBC's digital channels is growing, and much of it comes from inside the corporation. Robert Hanks tunes in, and is unimpressed – repeatedly
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The Independent Online

One of the features of the modern world that marks it off most clearly from the past is the decline of temptation: the whole idea of there being things that you want to do and can do but oughtn't to, which obsessed our ancestors, has shrivelled away almost to nothing (and where it does still exist, it has mostly been reclassified as "addiction"). Instead, we live in a world of opportunities, full of things you want to do and can do and would be a fool to pass up. We'd hardly recognise a temptation if it dangled itself under our nose.

Which brings us to the BBC and digital television. Reading what the BBC has to say about its digital TV services, you may notice that they are full of the language of opportunity – indeed, the first digital station (launched, you may be shocked to realise, a full nine years ago) laboured under the label "BBC Choice". With the multiple channels possible on digital television, broadcasters would have opportunities to reach new markets – when Choice became Three in 2003, there was a lot of talk about the "under-served" 16-34 market, which raised the question of who on Earth most television channels were serving – while viewers would have opportunities to "tailor" their viewing, not to mention "multiple viewing opportunities" (what you or I would call "lots of repeats").

Lately, though, opinion seems to have been swinging towards the view that the opportunities apparently presented by the digital world were after all temptations. In the last couple of weeks, laddish BBC Three and upper-middlebrow BBC Four have been under fire – friendly fire at that, with some of the BBC's most high-profile talent wondering aloud just what the point of them is.

First, the famously hot-tempered reporter John Sweeney, speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, called for the closure of either Three or Four rather than further economies in the BBC's current affairs coverage. Then John Humphrys, interviewed in this paper, expressed his anxiety about budget cuts threatened at the Today programme, and said: "If continuing with channels like BBC Three and BBC Four, if funding those channels means the price to pay is that there must be damaging cuts to core programmes then I don't believe it is a price worth paying." Terry Wogan – let's not mince words: Sir Terry Wogan – weighed in, describing the channels as "superfluous": "BBC4, in particular, has a tiny audience," he noted. "If it was scrapped then some of the things it does could go on BBC2, which has not been creative enough in recent years."

What was striking was not so much the remarks, themselves, as the almost complete silence that followed, broken only by the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, making the less-than-emphatic claim that: "We wouldn't want to close a complete service. Having built up these brands it would be a pretty big step to shut one of them down."

This is a modern version of the old puzzle about a tree falling in a forest when there's nobody to hear it: if a digital television channel closes down when nobody's watching it, does it make a sound?

It isn't true, of course, that nobody is watching; but the temptation is much easier to resist than it should be. When BBC Four first started, back in 2002, I thought for a little while that it had been designed for me personally. Arts programmes, foreign films, documentaries, repeats of classic drama (if I had to pick out a favourite moment from television in the last five years, it would be the moment I channel-hopped to BBC Four just in time to stumble on a rerun of Tom Stoppard's 1978 Play for Today, Professional Foul).

And, looking back over the five years of the channel's existence, there have been a lots of things I've liked: the appalling deadpan cynicism of Larry David's comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm; a lovely early series called Historians of Genius, in which great actors read out the words of Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle; the early film archives excavated in The Lost Worlds of Mitchell and Kenyon and then The Lost World of Friese-Greene. Just a few weeks ago, the channel managed to tuck in an interesting season of programmes on Ingmar Bergman just in time for his death.

But, against these, I have to put a large number of programmes that either didn't work in themselves, or seemed utterly at odds with the channel's supposed enthusiasm for the best and most challenging: The Alan Clark Diaries – one of Four's highest-rating programmes, but made on a budget so low you could hear the actors rattling around the set; a dramatisation of Our Hidden Lives, Simon Garfield's fascinating compilation of diaries kept during and after the Second World War, that managed to mangle or ignore practically everything that was interesting about them (such as the casual anti-Semitism); the recent evening devoted to celebrating the marvellousness of Stephen Fry – whose own anti-quiz programme QI is a teeth-clenching example of TV mistaking shallow cleverness for intelligence.

Where are the foreign films now? Early on, you might run across masterpieces such as La Règle du jeu and Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, as well as some unexpected pleasures. I was intrigued, puzzled and, on the whole, pleased by an eccentrically romantic Japanese film, Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, which I hadn't heard of and in the ordinary course of events would not have got around to seeing. Such serendipity is unlikely now, though. Looking at the schedules for this week and next week, a whole fortnight, I found one subtitled film, Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone. This is good – I haven't seen it, I've heard good things about it, I'm glad to have it drawn to my attention. The only problem is that it finishes at 1.40 on Tuesday morning, so I will almost certainly miss it.

The grim fact is that quality, intelligence and – perhaps the most important factor – money are spread too thin on BBC Four for it to become a habit. And where there is quality, the question has to be: why on Four? Why not, as Sir Terry Wogan asked, on BBC2, which used to broadcast programmes of precisely the challenging, innovative sort that are supposedly Four's remit? I've been reading Life On Air, David Hendy's new history of Radio 4: in the introduction, Hendy points out that Reithianism, so often caricatured as an elitist, patrician set of values, was explicitly about bringing "the best" into "the greatest number of homes". He found the Third Programme – the forerunner of Radio 3 – objectionable precisely because it "ring-fenced" culture, and meant that only a few would hear it. On that Reithian measure, BBC Four, with its tiny audiences, is a failure.

While we're talking Reithian, let's look at BBC Three, home of F*** Off, I'm Fat. Actually, though Three has a slightly feeble streak of in-yer-face coarseness, the real issue is not the quality of the programmes so much as their distinctiveness. Three was launched with a promise that it would broadcast lots of original material, and it has had some successes, particularly in comedy: the excellent The Mighty Boosh, the overrated but undeniably popular Little Britain.

But the truth is that its schedules are dominated by reruns, and by programmes parasitic on mainstream terrestrial successes. Glancing at the schedules for this Friday night, which ought to be peak viewing time, we see: a repeat of Doctor Who, followed by a repeat of the behind the scenes programme Doctor Who Confidential, followed by a repeat of The Real Hustle (a daft candid-camera programme, justified by a supposed crime-prevention message and a reference to the slick BBC1 drama Hustle), a repeat of the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood, followed by another repeated behind the scenes programme, Torchwood Declassified, a rerun of BBC1's 8pm showing of EastEnders, a programme about binge-drinkers called Drunks and Disorderlies (also a rerun); and then, from 11.30pm until closedown, at 4am, it's back to back reshowings of The Real Hustle, Drunk and Disorderlies, Torchwood, the cartoon Family Guy, and – inevitably – Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps.

Torchwood, by the way, exemplifies the difficulties of identifying "original" programming: every episode has been broadcast first on Three, and given it some of its biggest audiences; but the episodes are repeated very shortly afterwards on BBC2, where they get much larger ratings.

Again: why is it on digital TV, and watched by a few, rather than on BBC1 or BBC2 and so being watched by the many?

Watching Three and Four feels like seeing programme-makers in a trap – starved of money and viewers. Perhaps the only way to set them free is to put them back on the big channels, namely BBC1 and BBC2, where the viewers still are. The BBC has succumbed to temptation. But it still has the opportunity to put things right.