When they were launched, BBC Three and BBC Four were hailed as being at the heart of the corporation's strategy for the digital age, offering, it was claimed, choice and quality to a new generation of viewers.
But today, with the BBC facing some of the most severe budget cuts in its history, the veteran journalist John Humphrys urged senior executives to consider closing them to safeguard the quality of the broadcaster's most prestigious programming.
The presenter said he was "massively concerned" at the prospect of damaging cuts at the Radio 4 Today programme, which he has hosted for the past 20 years. He suggested Today might have to reduce its budget by as much as 20 per cent.
"We have already cut our budget by about 15 per cent in the last few years and there are rumours – I've no idea if they are true – that we might have to cut as much as another 20 per cent. We are then left with virtually no reporters," he said, predicting an eventual reporting staff reduced to just "four or five".
Humphrys, who joined the BBC in 1966, said that BBC director general Mark Thompson and his staff should protect the most valuable parts of the corporation's output.
He said: "If continuing with channels like BBC Three and BBC Four, if funding those channels means that the price to pay is that there must be damaging cuts to core programmes then I don't believe that is a price worth paying," adding: "The case cannot be made if the price to be paid is the kind of salami slicing which means that the Today programme not just suffers but is seriously damaged."
The comments, in an interview with The Independent's Media Weekly, follow calls by the Conservative MP John Whittingdale and the BBC Panorama journalist John Sweeney for BBC Three to be closed down.
BBC Three has struggled to make its mark since its launch in 2003. It has become a home for original comedy, with 90 per cent of its programming produced in the UK. The channel has an annual budget of £93.4m. Its most successful programme has been Little Britain. BBC Four marked its fifth anniversary in March and survives on a smaller annual budget of £67m.
The comments come after the BBC failed to persuade the Government to grant it the licence fee settlement it had requested. Further cuts are now regarded as inevitable, causing senior figures to speak out.
Ten days ago, at the Edinburgh Television Festival, Jeremy Paxman defended his own programme, Newsnight: "We have lost producers, researchers and reporters. Now we're told we're likely to have to make more cuts ... it is unsustainable."
Humphrys, 64, said the BBC should prioritise its output on the principles drawn up by its founder, Lord Reith, who said the BBC existed to " inform, educate and entertain". He said Today was "easily the most important programme that the BBC does".
Humphrys said the BBC had to be careful not to "sacrifice the present to the future". He said: "It's all very well to say in five years' time you will regard BBC Three and BBC Four as absolutely vital. Alright, at the moment only six men and a dog watch them but in five years' time by God they'll be a lot more important. That's fine! But what if in five years' time if you've damaged programmes like Today and other core programmes?"
BBC 4 Hits: Alan Clark's Diaries (885,000 viewers), Fantabulosa! (800,000)
Misses: Reader I Married Him (105,000), Art of Eternity (130,000), Lead Balloon (199,000, dropped from 383,000)
BBC 3 Hits: Torchwood (2,559,000) Little Britain (1,900,000) World Cup 2006: Post-match analysis (1,353,000)
Misses: Burn It (328,000) Sex.... with Mum and Dad (441,000)
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