Dear BBC, Please Don't Take My BBC4 Away From Me

By Gerald Lynch on at

Last night was one of the rare occasions when I got home from work at a reasonable time, didn't have any writing assignments to be getting on with and didn't have any beer to drink. Socially, of course. I got to watch some TV for the first time in weeks. The first channel I always look to? BBC4.

I popped open iPlayer last night and watched three lengthy shows back to back -- Big Brother Watching Me: Citizen Ai Weiwei, Mad Dog: Gaddafi's Secret World and the Oscar-nominated Cutie and the Boxer. Each was part of the Storyville series, each was an engrossing, educational and thoughtful approach to complex subject matter, and each was first broadcast on BBC4. And I can't imagine them turning up anywhere else on terrestrial TV.

Though I happened upon three shows from the Storyville series, there were tens of other shows I could have picked from BBC4's output. From architecture to the arts, historical and natural world documentaries, BBC4 consistently provides me with the most rewarding programming on TV. But it could be about to be switched off.

The BBC is on a cost-cutting spree, looking to claw back some £700 million to balance its books. In order to achieve this, Director General Tony Hall will have to make some drastic cut backs, and it's now been suggested that a whole channel could face the chop in order to free up a further £100 million.

The two likely candidates are the youth-orientated BBC3, and BBC4. A quick look at the most recent ratings makes it clear to see why these two channels face the axe. BBC4's best-performing show over the last fortnight was Belgian thriller Salamander, which pulled in 1.16 million viewers at its peak. 1999 film Enemy of the State pulled in just 0.88 million viewers for BBC3 despite being its most-watched item over two weeks. Compare that to the 10.5 million pulled in by BBC1's Call the Midwife or 6.87 million for BBC2's Top Gear, and you can see that both channels are underperforming. All the shows in BBC1's top 30 pulled in at least 4.7 million viewers.

But can documentaries about political-prisoner-artists and dead dictators ever pull in as many people as quipping Clarkson and his fast cars? Of course not. Does that make them any less valuable? Not at all -- BBC4's output is exactly what public service broadcasting should be, being both entertaining and intellectually fulfilling. Whereas BBC3 is filled with mostly-rubbish comedy and dating shows, BBC4 offers up a menagerie of stimulating programming, pulling in shows covering all imaginable facets of human existence. The remit of its factual-content programming is so wide that that's not even that much of an exaggeration -- just look at what's on the iPlayer at the moment.

Now, I'm not saying that I want to see BBC3 go -- I like Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents far too much to suggest that, and despite my obvious preference for factual programming, there has to be room for lighter entertainment too. But if a choice between the two had to be made, I'd stand by BBC4 till the death.

While it's unlikely that both would go, it's not impossible. It's thought that top-level talks are in place to see the BBC return to a two-channel focus when it comes to TV, just concentrating on BBC One and BBC Two. There's the potential for BBC Two and BBC Four to merge, but if it's simply a race for ratings, BBC4's niche-but-excellent programming will always lose out to the populist likes of Top Gear.

Being publically funded, such a channel cut cannot be made without a consensus being reached by the BBC Trust. And the BBC has been talked down from rash decisions by enough angry voices in the past -- remember when a vocal social media campaign saved the excellent 6 Music radio station? If BBC4 needs my voice, I'll be happy to give it, and I hope there's enough people out there similarly passionate about the channel to save it should it eventually be placed on the chopping block.