BBC Four presenters rally to save channel amid closure rumours
Lucy Worsley and Waldemar Januszczak are among those to have taken to social media
Published onThu 14 May 2020 17.52 BST
BBC Four presenters are rallying to save the arts and culture channel which is rumoured to be facing closure as the corporation looks to cut costs and invest in younger audiences.
Presenters including Lucy Worsley, art historian Dr James Fox, Oxford historian Dr Janina Ramirez and Waldemar Januszczak have taken to social media to campaign against widespread rumours that it could be shut as a TV channel by the end of this year.
BBC Four, which has an annual budget of £44m, attracts a small, niche audience of mostly older viewers to its schedule of shows, although it was responsible for creating the hit comedy The Thick Of It.
Rumours that BBC Four could be under threat have been circulating for some time as the corporation has made it clear that its goal is to pursue younger audiences increasingly slipping away to rivals such as Netflix.
Speculation intensified earlier this month when it was announced that Cassian Harrison, BBC Four’s long-serving controller, is to move to BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm, on a nine-month attachment.
“There are no plans to close BBC Four,” said a BBC spokesman.
However, there are several options available as an alternative to a full closure of the channel. One option, which has been floated a number of times over the years, is to merge BBC Four with BBC Two. Another is for BBC Four to follow sister channel BBC Three and cease to exist as a TV channel, instead becoming online-only.
Earlier this year it emerged that the corporation’s bosses have discussed a return to TV for BBC Three, which moved online-only in 2016 as the corporation pursued its youth audience, which could replace the slot held by BBC Four in electronic programming guides.
BBC Three has flourished during the coronavirus lockdown with youth drama Normal People fueling its best week ever.
The corporation is in the process of making major cost cuts to plug a huge hole in its finances, including hundreds of millions of pounds to pay for the end of free TV licences for the over-75s.
In addition, the BBC has said the coronavirus will cost it £125m as door-to-door enforcement activity stops and a call centre that handles payments shut down because of the lockdown and physical distancing rules.
A decade ago a vocal campaign saved radio channel BBC 6 Music from closure after the then director general Mark Thompson looked to shut it, and digital sister station BBC Asian Network, to cut costs. The campaign raised awareness of the music station, which recorded its biggest-ever weekly audience, 2.56 million listeners, in the first quarter this year.
BBC Four’s future is uncertain, but we need arts channels like it now more than ever
The home of arts programming and innovative dramas like The Thick of It, BBC Four may now be under threat - and the impact would be devastating, says Flora Carr
By Flora Carr
Monday, 11th May 2020 at 4:39 pm
BBC Four first launched almost 20 years ago, back in 2002. At the time, controller Roly Keating claimed in Radio Times that the new channel would be able to achieve things that no other channel could – its slogan was “everybody needs a place to think”. It was, and is, ostensibly a place for culture, a free-to-air channel helping to democratise the arts.
It’s also ambitious when it comes to commissioning original British content. Such gems like political satire The Thick of It, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, the hilarious Olympics comedy Twenty Twelve, and the thinking-woman’s quiz game Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell, all originated on BBC Four.
Which is why the new rumour that the BBC will soon be relegating BBC Four to online, as it previously did with BBC Three, came as such an unwelcome surprise. Last week Broadcast added oxygen to those industry rumours, revealing that BBC sources feared for the channel’s future following its editor Cassian Harrison’s move to BBC Studios.
Much has been said in the recent weeks and months about how in times of crises, we turn to the arts – but that in the case of this particular crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, the arts have never been more at risk. Following the news about BBC Four, it must be assumed that the same can now be said for arts programming.
At times frightening, at other times frustrating, lockdown is a stressful state to be in, and BBC Four represents everything that’s keeping us sane during this pandemic. We find refuge in the arts: escapism, a creative outlet, or else a place to disappear. Under lockdown, galleries, theatres and film sets are (rightly) closed. Concerts are cancelled, and booksellers struggling. But as we’ve discovered, the arts aren’t luxuries: they are a vital part of our own identities, of our culture and communities.
Through film and art and reading books, we travel to places we may never go, meet people we would never encounter otherwise; it’s a lifeline for those who are currently staring at the same four walls day in, day out, and particularly for those self-isolating alone.
For those stuck at home and looking for creative ways to fill their time, BBC Four has filled that gap. Tomorrow at 8pm, for example, BBC Four viewers are invited to pick up their pencils for a life drawing class – with real nude models – as the nation channels its artistic side.
It’s via BBC Four that we were first introduced to many foreign dramas, from Twin (the Scandi-noir, starring Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, that’s recently gripped the nation), The Killing and the original Wallander, to American imports like Mad Men and the gentle art series Painting with Bob Ross, which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and achieved cult status among millennials and Generation Z viewers (it even featured in teen drama Euphoria).
Britain’s future music stars, like the royal wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, are discovered on the contest BBC Young Musician, which has been televised solely for BBC Four since 2014.
If you go on BBC iPlayer, BBC Four’s channel page is chock-full of content for those in quarantine. For those missing visits to art galleries, you can check out their ‘Museums in Quarantine’ four-parter. Slowly realising you’ll probably miss that sold-out play you booked before the lockdown? You can watch the channel’s Culture In Quarantine: Shakespeare series. But of course, the great thing about BBC Four is that it’s also on-air, so older, less mobile and potentially less tech-savvy viewers can still experience culture from the comfort of their homes.
Music, literature, drama, comedy, theatre, art: it’s all there. And now more than ever, we need channels like BBC Four, to plug the gap that’s currently missing from our lives.
Through channels like BBC Four, we can all access the arts. It doesn’t matter if we couldn’t attend that famous play at The Globe Theatre, or couldn’t visit the Tate Modern; and it certainly doesn’t matter if we’d normally be too shy to attend a real-life life drawing class.
But taking BBC Four off-air, and limiting its resources, would make it that little bit harder for people to experience world-class culture – whether we’re in lockdown or not.