BBC Four to become archive channel as Beeb cuts costs
James R | On 30, Mar 2021
BBC Four will become an archive-focused channel as the Beeb continues to cut costs.
The channel, which has brought the world such shows as Thick of It, Secrets of Cinema, Detectorists, Burton & Taylor and Charlie Brooker’s Wipe franchise, was rumoured to be facing possible closure last year, as the BBC faces pressure to save a targeted £800 million a year by March 2022. While it met that target several years ago, the financial pressure continues, even as the organisation faces growing competition for viewer attention from streaming services.
Today, the BBC outlined its plans for 2021-22 and confirmed that it does not intend to close BBC Four. Instead, it will no longer commission original programming for the channel, sadly turning it into a channel centred around repeats of archive content.
It will “become the home of the most distinctive content from across the BBC’s archive,” said the document outlining the Beeb’s plans today. “The proposed changes to BBC Four will build on the channel’s current archive content offer which already comprises 76 per cent of BBC Four’s broadcast hours and 69 per cent of the channel’s broadcast viewing hours.”
The channel will at least remain the home for performance, such as the BBC Proms, BBC Young Dancer and BBC Young Musician programmes. It will also showcase arts and music acquisitions and maintain its role in partnering with arts institutions, such as the Lyric Theatre, National Theatre Scotland and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Meanwhile, the BBC will be turning its attention to BBC Two, planning to double its arts and music spend for the channel, using that to expand arts and music programming on BBC iPlayer.
“We will deliver more value to audiences by focusing on unique, high impact content, commissioning fewer but bigger titles of higher quality that can reach more audiences and with more opportunities for creative innovation,” says the document.
The BBC will launch eight major arts and music boxset series for iPlayer each year, which will “necessitate a shift away from commissioning a high volume of lower cost programmes on BBC Four, which are less effective at reaching audiences on the channel and on iPlayer”.
The proposals come as the BBC reports that more than 90 per cent of UK adults used BBC services each week, across the last 12 months, with iPlayer breaking new records in 2020 – racking up 5.8 billion requests to stream programmes, up 31 per cent on the year before.
It also arrives as the BBC plans to return BBC Three to linear TV broadcasting, reversing its switch to an online-only channel in 2016.
BBC Three aims to “reach as many young people as possible and particularly those who have a strong broadcast habit”, with a proposal to start broadcasting from 7pm to 4am from January 2022, effectively sharing a spot with CBBC, which will go back to closing at 7pm instead of its current time of 9pm. BBC Three’s remit will also be expanded to include a pre-watershed content offer also suitable for 13+ audiences.
The Beeb will continue to invest more in BBC Three programming, with the aim of doubling investment by 2022/23. It will notably bring more content specifically aimed at audiences aged 16 to 34 to the screen, as it fends off rivalry from YouTube, Netflix and more.
The Beeb will also be investing heavily in BBC iPlayer, aiming to make it “the most culturally relevant streaming service in the UK”. It will attempt to do this through product development, marketing and targeted curation to make for a more personalised experience for each viewer, with more programmes made available on BBC iPlayer before their broadcast.
The BBC’s announcement follows Sky’s decision to step into similar territory, making Sky Arts available on Freeview (11) and Freesat (147) last September. Sky Arts has since picked up a number of high-profile documentaries, including Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché, White Riot and King Rocker, broadcast National Theatre Live recordings and will also air the National Theatre’s Romeo & Juliet, starring Josh O’Connor and Jessie Buckley, in April.