Why we need BBC4

BBC4 collage: Congo Calling, Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe, The Joy of Disco, The Killing (1280x720)In the wake of the impending shutdown of BBC3 this autumn, the BBC has so far been vague when it comes to discussing the fate of BBC4. Rebranding seems certain if the station does survive. But there are many reasons why the BBC shouldn’t close BBC4.

BBC4’s output is a consistently strong example of the BBC’s ability to give programming on subjects, issues and groups, that wouldn’t necessarily be commissioned by other broadcasters, the chance to serve discerning viewers and reach new audiences.

It started life as BBC Knowledge, and the channel continues to air bizarre and intriguing documentaries on science and nature, such as Ice Age Giants and Do We Really Need the Moon?. It also screens the annual Royal Institute Christmas lectures. While some may see it as too “highbrow”, its approach to last autumn’s Spider House, where presenter and biologist Alice Roberts attempts to overcome her arachnophobia by spending time in a rural house filled with the eight-legged beasts, shows the station can use the real life story format to fit its remit.

BBC4 has also been the starting point for some of the BBC’s smartest comedy series. Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, The Thick of It and Twenty Twelve all started life on the channel before making the move to BBC2. It’s also brought us trend-setting drama, too, with the station buying in The Killing, The Bridge and Borgen, spurring the nation’s (or at least UK networks’) obsession with Nordic dramas. And despite it not getting recommissioned, there are those of us who enjoyed Howard Overman’s adaptation of Douglas Adams’s bungling ‘holistic detective’, Dirk Gently.

Perhaps the station’s proudest achievement, however, is as a destination for what is no doubt considered “niche” arts and culture programming. Sky Arts certainly does its part to fill the void in an ocean of ad-funded TV networks fixated on what’s next and what’s new. But, whether from independent producers or made in-house, BBC4’s well-researched documentaries have a quality and attention to detail that’s rarely matched.

They inform you about subcultures (punk, funk, disco), educate you about icons and legends (Bobby Womack, Nile Rodgers, Otis Redding) and entertain you with historical tales that have relevance to our modern lives (Rule Britannia! Music, Mischief and Morals in the 18th Century, Congo Calling: An African Orchestra in Britain). You don’t have to have been part of any social movement to flick over to BBC4 and find yourself absorbed in a tale you won’t see on other channels.

If BBC4 were to be shutdown, the BBC would not only lose one of the greatest examples of its ethos, but there’s a danger the station’s spirit, as a champion for experimental and discerning programming, will diminish at the BBC as well. And that won’t just be bad for science buffs, music fans with an appreciation beyond the pop charts and ethnic minorities, that’ll be bad for all of us.

Image: BBC and respective owners

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