There are rumours that BBC4 — the TV channel — could be closed down as a cost saving measure by the BBC.
Its market reach is minimal, and if you’re trying to save money, cutting it where few people will notice makes a lot of sense.
However, its output as a TV channel is also nearly unique in British broadcasting, so if you were looking not just at the BBC, but at TV as a whole, would you cut a niche, but fairly unique service, or make a modest slice into the bigger pie served up by the main channels?
A person who enjoys BBC1 would not have a huge amount of difficulty finding similar light entertainment fare on other channels, both terrestrial and satellite/cable. Not as good obviously, but there is content available.
BBC2 and Channel 4 can, to some degree be seen as appealing to broadly similar audiences, more in the past than today as the divergence has widened in recent years.
Where does the BBC4 viewer go – there’s handful of channels on satellite/digital to choose from, but unless you like your history dominated by Nazis and aliens, it’s rather thin gruel.
Cutting a TV channel to save money if it’s overly expensive to produce could well be a good idea though.
Is BBC4 expensive? All those documentaries from around the world flying presenters and film crews can’t be cheap. And it only broadcasts from 7pm, so it can’t even pick up some daytime viewers by repeating its content to maximise the return.
However, at it happens, BBC4 is exceptionally cheap to produce.
Looking only at BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4, as those are the three big general interest BBC channels – in 2018/19, their budgets were:
BBC1 – £1,106 million
BBC2 – £381 million
BBC4 – £44 million
Ahh, but BBC4 has a tiny market share, and only broadcasts in the evenings, so its going to have a smaller budget, but does the spending match their market shares?
Looking at the three channels – their total budget comes in at £1,531 million.
Market shares of total UK viewing is 21.57%, 5.66% and 0.92% respectively.
Market shares as percentage of BBC viewing is 76.6%, 21.1% and 3.3% respectively.
If you split the BBC TV spending by their market shares, then you end up with budgets of:
|Channel||Actual budget||Budget if adjusted by market share|
|BBC1||£1,106 million||£1,173 million|
|BBC2||£381 million||£307 million|
|BBC4||£44 million||£50 million|
The conclusion is that BBC1 is about OK, BBC2 seems to have more spent on it than it merits for its audience size, and BBC4 far from being cut, should in fact have its budget increased.
If the BBC were to look to cut costs, then BBC4 seems to be the wrong place to cut it.
Not just because it seems to be offering rather good value for money in terms of how much it costs to reach the audience it does, but also because that particular audience is going to struggle to find alternative viewing options on broadcast telly.
I will never say that BBC4’s output will be mainstream, but part of the BBC’s remit, and the justification for the mandatory license fee is that it seeks to reach the widest audience that it can.
Candidly, you could probably take £44 million out of BBC1’s budget and I doubt the viewing public would even notice the difference. But shut down BBC4, as is rumoured to be planned, and you leave a gaping hole in the viewing habits of a sizeable minority of the British population.
Ideally it’s not an either or situation, as the channels often feed into each other, with lecturers discovered on BBC4 becoming the stars of BBC2 and 1, and in doing so, their wider reach helps to fulfill the BBCs remit to educate and inform the wider public, and helps to justify the license fee.
David Attenborough could never have launched his nature documentaries on BBC1, but needed the smaller BBC2 to seed the audience. Likewise today the likes of Prof Brian Cox are given space and time on BBC2 and BBC4 and can go on to be the next generation of popular documentary super stars.
Where will BBC1 find its next Attenboroughs and Coxes if BBC4 is no longer there to nurture them?
There is a petition, if you like.
BBC4 was also the birthplace of The Thick of It, and I dread to think what Malcolm Tucker would be saying right now.