When one is tempted to complain about what’s on television, it’s often easy to forget that, not only are particular programmes or channels aimed at people very different from us, but also the people who make programmes and run channels are people very different from us. Even taking all of that into account, I still feel that BBC4 is a channel where great opportunities are not fully developed. This topic has been discussed by more knowledgeable commentators than me, but here is my tuppence worth.
The channel started life as BBC Knowledge, and it seems originally to have been planned as a channel of high-ish culture and documentary. In its early days, that’s certainly the way it looked to this person who didn’t receive its programmes and only read its schedules.
Some intelligent and imaginative ideas have been retained. The idea of Friday night being (mainly pop and rock) music night, with a mix of new and repeat programmes, seems to be popular, as are many imported dramas like The Killing and Lilyhammer. The daily World News is a refreshing alternative to other BBC news output, although it was better still when not scheduled as a rival to Channel 4 News.
But why are the foreign films (classic as well as contemporary) not a regular feature instead of an occasional one, thus providing a genuine alternative to most of the movies on BBC1 and BBC2? It’s always been hard to see foreign language cinema if you live outside London, but sometimes in the past BBC2 and Channel 4 provided that cultural service. It’s a perfect niche for BBC4.
Surely, too, the BBC must have a huge drama archive available for rescreening. They must have tapes of dozens (maybe even hundreds) of productions of the great playwrights of the past featuring well-known actors which would still look perfectly watchable in 2013. When the Boat Comes In and Colditz, mainstream rather than prestige fare when they were first released but brilliantly crafted in comparison to much 21st century TV drama, were shown on the Yesterday channel. Why not Saturday night as drama night on BBC4?
Also, although some imported dramas have been high-profile successes on the terrestrial channels , one keeps reading of US programmes which either never get shown regularly here, or get pushed onto channels like FX which few people have access to. Were The Wire and Breaking Bad so expensive to buy, or were their distinctive audience-grabbing qualities so hard to foresee?
Finally, performances of classical music and opera are shown rarely outside the summer Proms season, yet there is a big audience for them up and down the country and all the year round. The status of composers and performers of this type of music tends to stay more steady in popular taste than those of pop or rock music, so surely there are safe rescreening opportunities here?
I often think that many of the people who are responsible for producing and screening programmes nowadays simply lack confidence in judging what is good quality and what is less good. Undeniably, there has been blurring of the boundaries of high and low culture over the post war decades : some of the areas of high culture have been marginalised and are now unappreciated and undervalued; popular culture in turn has continued to expand and profit. One consequence during the past decade has been this strange phenomenon where documentaries are made in the style of drama, with imposed characterisations, suspense and emotion – although it’s equally possible that has developed merely because writers and actors are too expensive and demanding!
Perhaps the executives responsible for BBC4 should think of it as the TV equivalent of Radio 3. The latter has been popularised significantly in the last twenty years, but I suspect most licence-fee payers would still consider most of its content substantial and stimulating, even if specialised, and certainly worth supporting and developing.