Richard Klein, Controller, BBC Four
BBC Four: A new way of thinking. Speech at the VLV Conference
Wednesday 24 November 2010
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Good afternoon and thank you for inviting me.
I'd like to start this afternoon with a question – what is BBC Four for?
Although at least half our annual £37m spend goes directly on arts, music, cuIture and knowledge, BBC Four isn't only an arts channel. We play comedy like Jo Brand's Getting On, the best of international television, like Wallender and Mad Men, entertainment like Only Connect, and dramas like The Road To Coronation Street, Lennon Naked, and Enid Blyton.
This range is the fulfilment of our BBC Trust-approved remit, to be a mixed genre channel offering ambition, innovation and quality, focusing on factual and arts programming. I have always felt that BBC Four should be about delivering entertaining and thought-provoking programming to an audience that is hungry for content they cannot get elsewhere, to deliver television that reaches those parts of the brain that other television doesn't reach.
It is, in a word, an empowering channel.
It is one of the things which sets BBC Four apart from other channels in both the digital and the terrestrial TV worlds. That editorial view, commentating, opinionated and informed, is a unique voice in British television. Yes, we cover mainstream subjects like other terrestrial channels – but we do it in a very particular way.
Take the 2010 Year of Science. BBC Two plays out the whole 3000 year history of scientific thinking in a six-hour series – wonderfully broad and covering all bases; and Brian Cox presents his brilliant, colourful Wonders Of The Solar System.
BBC Four plays out a three-part series on British Nobel prize winners called Brilliant Minds; a three-part series on chemistry, just on the periodic table; a strange and wonderful film about chaos theory, and now coming up about six hours of programming on stats, equations and diagrams. All mainstream, but also quite peculiar to BBC Four, deep, opinionated and authored and, I'd argue, not much of it remotely suitable for BBC Two.
And BBC Four has a unique place in the digital world too. We originate through seasons, curating whole new perspectives to apply a new lens on subjects. We don't strip and strand – running the same shows across a week in the same slot, or the same show endlessly repeated throughout the evening. And we're increasingly the principal portal for the viewing public to access the BBC's archive – not just as an inert library but as a lively and entertaining place to re-visit old favourites or discover new things from the past.
Of course being distinctive from another channel is not the only purpose of a channel. BBC Four sets out to be distinctive in its own right, and it does so by actively contributing as much to the cultural and artistic landscape of Britain as it does reflecting it.
And to do that properly requires energy, vigour and an enquiring editorial position.
But it also requires actual investment in new programming, spending money on champions of opinion and sponsoring producers in all parts of the creative community to give us a new perspective on a subject, to re-consider, to re-calibrate.
It is not enough, in my view, to deliver a Wikipedia-based lump of content or stick out repeats by the yard without purpose or curation. Channels that seek to comment on the world around us must engage actively with that world, not passively reflect it.
Nor is braying loudly about a small piece of content the same as actually making new programmes. That requires investment in programming, and not just in the marketing.
And in that sense BBC Four is a channel that adds cultural value – a position of genuine distinction, but also a position that is utterly public service, informed by a license fee-based view of the world.
In the past couple of months we have shown a 90-minute film that re-assessed the genius of Elgar; a dramatic interpretation of HG Wells' sci-fi masterpiece The First Men In The Moon; Laura Cummings' clever film about painters' self portraits; a brand-new film about World War Two poet Keith Douglas; a look at the extraordinary power of the human head in sculpture; a new film by Tony Palmer about Leonard Cohen; and a whole new re-appraisal of northern England's artistic and cultural contribution to Britain.
There's more – coming up in the next few weeks – a completely new analysis of the genius of German art and culture from Andrew Graham Dixon; a specially created Christmas concert of carols sung by some of Britain's finest black and soul singers; a charming celebration of one of Britain's most appealing folk art forms, clog dancing; new theatre with a new and remarkable re-interpretation of Macbeth, starring Patrick Stewart; and an adaptation of Douglas Adams' classic fiction novel, Dirk Gently.
And, over the next few coming years BBC Four intends to expand its plans to contribute actively to Britain's stock by organising a series of topical arts events. We are already doing this, of course – the Proms is a good example, but so too are events like The Songwriters' Circle, our Barbican concerts and Young Musician of the Year and Choir of the Year.
This sense of what a channel like BBC Four should look like has a purpose beyond satisfying a few art critics and the metropolitan smart set. If a channel is to be relevant then it has to be watched and appreciated. It is no good simply to transmitting programming no one is watching.
In the case of BBC Four we are watched – by hundreds of thousands of viewers. Our reach – the number of people who watch BBC Four for at least three minutes each week - is over eight-and-a-half million people, and we're growing steadily. In terms of arts programming alone BBC Four's reach is as good as and sometimes better than ITV's and Channel Four's. And BBC Four programmes are regularly watched by over a million viewers over the course of a seven day period.
To sum up, I believe BBC Four is a genuine alternative in both the digital and terrestrial TV worlds. It will always think about its output, re-evaluate it and contextualise it. It will always add the spark of original thinking, curating and fashioning – often through the brilliant minds of credible, clever, informed authors and presenters – so that audiences can enjoy a new perspective. It is what I would like to call enlightening television.
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