BBC's digital home for cultural programming and foreign drama has been a critical and popular success but hefty cuts are on the way that will see history, entertainment and original drama axed
George Formby, seen here with Kay Walsh in the 1938 film I See Ice, joined Wagner as subjects for the channel's eclectic mix of documentraries. Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive/ATP
There have been discussions of Wagner, camping, cabaret and George Formby; introductions to French cops, Danish politicians and unlikely New Zealand pop sensations. For a 10-year-old, BBC4 is something of an overachiever.
Even its birthday parties have a certain style: despite serious budget cuts looming large, on Friday evening the channel marks a decade on air by strapping on its platforms, dusting down the glitterball and, of course, examining social change in the 70s, as it celebrates The Joy of Disco. As BBC4's controller, Richard Klein, remarks: "It's a very, very BBC4 thing."
After a decade of programming, what makes a "BBC4 thing" has changed surprisingly little. On Saturday, 2 March, 2002, viewers of the BBC's new digital channel were treated to a documentary about Goya, a comedy drama focused on Salvador Dali, music from Baaba Mal, a film about the artist Michael Landy; a tribute to Peggy Lee and satire from John Morton (whose relationship with the channel is still going strong: he penned the channel's recent Olympics mockumentary Twenty Twelve).
Unfortunately, the Guardian reported, the launch went almost unnoticed in terms of audience share, with an average of 11,000 viewers tuning in over the evening. The Gist, a spoof arts programme, was watched by just 3,000 viewers.
"I'm really struck by the extent to which the mix is very, very close to what we'd developed in the beginning of the channel," says Roly Keating, the first controller of BBC4 and now the BBC's director of archive content. "Arts and music right at the heart of it."
Keating, who subsequently ran BBC2, saw the digital channel as offering audiences the opportunity to explore ideas and culture in more depth. "I take a lot of pride in what BBC4 has achieved – not just kept faith with its 'A place to think' mission but really grown an audience for that genre," he said.
The channel still has only a fraction of BBC1's audience share but it has more than doubled over the decade, helped in part by recent success with imported dramas such as The Killing.
And yet BBC4's birthday present is not an increase in budget to allow it to develop further but, as the BBC has to find 20% savings, a hefty cut that will see areas in which the channel excels axed completely. History, entertainment programming and original drama – which attracts large audiences – are all for the chop.
The gameshow Only Connect might survive alongside European imports and comedy such as The Thick of It, but critically lauded dramas such as Gracie!, Hattie and The Road to Coronation Street will be missing from the schedules.
"It is right to mourn the fact that there will be a loss," acknowledges Klein. "It is a bit of a shame that we will be losing drama and, of course, there's a danger that the channel will suffer. But BBC4 will continue to be a commissioning channel and, given our size, reasonably funded."
Viewers may notice the effects of those cuts on screen, he admits. "The challenge is to maintain our position as a channel that offers a range of flavours. It's about that mix of things on offer."
This summer that mix will include an alternative look at the human body that involves filming digestion, while next year BBC4 will collaborate with the Southbank Centre as part of its year-long festival of 20th-century classical music.
During the Olympics, the channel will be reflecting on 10 years of its programming – offering a haven for those uninterested in sport.
When BBC4 was first launched, people perceived it to be "rather austere, possibly even rather worthy", before the introduction of a broader definition of culture under subsequent controllers, says Klein.
Foreign-language drama has also brought new viewers to the channel with Wallander establishing BBC4 as a home for quality European crime drama such as the French show Spiral.
"I've got no doubt that The Killing was a game-changer in terms of the channel and perceptions of it," says Klein. "Who would have thought that the two dramas memorable from 2011 would have been Downton Abbey on ITV1 and The Killing on BBC4?"
But the Danish crime drama's success also brought competition, with fellow digital channels ITV3, FX and Sky Arts all subsequently purchasing and broadcasting European crime imports.
And now Sky Arts appears to be moving into BBC4's traditional territory, announcing a series of new plays with all-star casts, a music show with Ronnie Wood, and Israeli imports in the shape of BeTipul – which was remade by HBO as In Treatment – and Prisoners of War, which formed the inspiration for the US hit Homeland, currently airing on Channel 4.
Despite the cuts affecting BBC4, Klein refuses to see Sky Arts as competition even if he admires some of the channel's work such as its innovative Leonardo Live project.
"What will Sky Arts deliver in terms of audience? They are in a different game," says the BBC controller with reference to the Sky channel's smaller audience share. "We spend our money on programming. Sky Arts spends much more on marketing and much less on making.
"I'm about getting audiences, delivering as much good content to as broad an audience as possible."
It remains to be seen whether BBC4 can continue to grow in the face of budget cuts.
(Vicky Frost, The Guardian, Friday 2 March 2012)