What’s the point of BBC4?

When the channel started in 2002, it was branded as “a place to think”. Later is became a pantomime horse, part Jonathan Miller, part Top Gear. What happened?

Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in the Killing, brought by Richard Klein to BBC4.
Sofie Gråbøl as Sarah Lund in the Killing, brought by Richard Klein to BBC4.

Richard Klein, BBC4’s controller since 2008, is off to ITV. His time at BBC4 will be remembered for pop archives, dramas about British comedians and Eurocop shows on Saturday nights. Klein was the man who brought The Killing and Scandinavian noir to Britain.

Critics accuse Klein, however, of dumbing down BBC4. When the channel started in 2002, it was branded as “a place to think”. The creative director of BBC Broadcast, Ruth Shabi, said: “The core concept of the campaign ‘Everybody Needs a Place to Think’ reflects BBC4’s aim to give viewers access to big ideas and brilliant people.” Presumably she didn’t mean dramas about Hattie Jacques. What happened?

The first problem was timing. To watch BBC4, you need Freeview. Now 12 million people watch Freeview but fewer did when the channel launched over a decade ago. By Christmas 2002, BBC4 had an audience share of 0.1 per cent. It never recovered from this catastrophic start. By 2008, its audience share was still only 0.5 per cent. The BBC lost its nerve. Out went “the place to think”; in came Klein, who tried to make it a more accessible, less highbrow channel. It didn’t work. BBC4’s audience share is still only 0.8 per cent. Worse still, the channel never found a new identity.

Which brings us to the second problem: what’s the difference between BBC2 and BBC4? For 40 years, BBC2 was BBC Television’s smart choice. It was where you could watch edgy arts programmes such as Arena and The Late Show, alternative comedy and serious drama. True, there was always a mixed diet: arts and ideas but also Pot Black and MasterChef. It was a pantomime horse, part Jonathan Miller, part Top Gear.

Then came BBC4, BBC2’s smarter brother, but it dumbed down and became just like BBC2: Borgen and Martin Scorsese documentaries but also Britain’s Best Drives. Isn’t that what BBC2 is for? Tweedle-Two and Tweedle-Four.

One of the most pressing problems facing the new director general, Tony Hall, is what to do with this mess. Everyone knows what BBC1 and BBC3 are. But who needs both BBC2 and BBC4? One logical solution is to kill off BBC4. Not only is it not doing the job it was created for, it’s not even clear what job it’s doing at all.

There is an alternative. Why not move BBC4 upmarket, as originally intended, creating two distinct channels? Dumbing down didn’t work. The audience share rose from 0.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent in a decade. It was like one of those bizarre Soviet experiments that went nowhere. Instead, why not relaunch it as something distinctive?

There’s a reason why this is the right time. The culture is smartening up. Take Michael Sandel. Twenty years ago, only a few academics had heard of Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard. Now he’s everywhere: books, public lectures, a TV series. The ideas he talks about – private greed and public squalor – speak to austerity Britain.

He’s not the only one. People are more interested in ideas. Take the buzz about Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism or the revival of “big history”. Or take The Killing. A few years ago, no one would have shown a foreignlanguage detective series on British TV. The Killing was such a success that French and Saunders were making jokes about Sarah Lund’s jumper. There is an appetite for smart talk and smart drama, something a lot cleverer than Broadchurch.

This is the moment to relaunch BBC4. What it needs is distinctive faces – in the way Gordon Ramsay and Jon Snow are faces for Channel 4 – and a distinctive agenda. BBC4 could become the channel for the age of Intelligence Squared, Hay-on-Wye and G2, smart viewing for people who want smart TV.