The announcement this week that BBC Four is to stop making new programmes and become a largely repeats-only channel – which they are cheekily calling ‘archive’ to make it sound better – is a depressing reminder to viewers of a very long-term trend.
When BBC Four was launched amidst much fanfare in 2002, its slogan was ‘Everybody Needs a Place to Think’. Has the BBC decided that they no longer do? Or perhaps the corporation – in focusing on ‘youth programming’ like BBC Three – thinks it isn’t its job to provide one.
Oh dear. Whatever happened to television? And in particular, the area that BBC Four was particularly supposed to promote: factual and arts television.
Time was when working in television was to work in one of the most exciting industries around. A huge wealth of documentary-making talent showed us how we were living both in this country and abroad – to reveal ‘The World About Us’, as one long-running factual series proclaimed. While Arts documentaries would introduce cutting-edge new artists, and often be so well-made as to be artistic films in their own right: the glory days of 40 Minutes and Arena.
Now it’s largely curatorial. A glance at television schedules right across the BBC shows a woeful lack of ambition, with a staggering amount of repeats already. There are hardly any new observational documentaries to show us how other people live. And, with rare exceptions, the only arts documentaries are obvious coffee-table accompaniments to big shows at the National Gallery, stately and reverential.
For some years now, BBC Four has settled into a comfortable armchair with carefully stage-managed lessons by presenters like Andrew Marr, or Lucy Worsley – ‘floating lectern’ programmes as they are known in the trade – where the presenter delivers a scripted lecture with an appropriate and changing backdrop, a bit like a PowerPoint presentation or something for the Open University.