Part One

Jack Kibble-White takes on BBC2

First published August 2001

Whilst everyone’s been talking about the impact of the digital revolution on terrestrial television for ages, it seems to be only now that we are finally approaching the moment when its influence will at last be felt.

The traumas of withholding first runs of American imports, not withstanding, E4‘s extended and complimentary coverage of Big Brother has been the first time that events unfolding outwith terrestrial output have found their way into the public consciousness. At last year’s Edinburgh festival, BBC Director General Greg Dyke outlined the digital future for the BBC (of which more in a moment) and at the time of writing OnDigital has just become ITV Digital (with the rebranding of the parent channel to ITV1 to follow). Channel 4 of course already has a multi-channel presence in the form of the aforementioned E4 and the already established Film on Four. Even the increasingly irrelevant Channel 5 has staked its claim, securing bandwidth currently occupied by ITV Digital’s on demand digital channels. Whilst it seems that the BBC and ITV’s remit to provide programming to cater for the widest possible audience is likely to remain, it is only logical to presume that with the proliferation of their own service, there will be more specialisation and less diversity within each individual channel.

It could be argued that BBC2 already finds itself in a room with shrinking walls. High minded documentaries are increasingly catered for by the Corporation’s own BBC Knowledge; whereas UK Living is cornering the lowbrow, lifestyle market. As soon as it gets its act together, E4 should become the logical home for new, cutting edge comedy, whilst it is likely that BBC1′s also shifting position will result in the appropriation of new drama. There is of course room for a channel with a wide remit designed to accommodate general programming for those with alternative sensibilities, yet Channel 4 looks better positioned to deliver this then BBC2. Whilst the repositioning of other existing channels already raises questions about BBC2′s function, the BBC’s own plans suggest a more uniform and restrictive future for channels within the Corporation’s umbrella.

“In the long term we plan that BBC2 will increasingly focus on intelligent specialist factual programmes our key leisure and lifestyle programmes, thoughtful analysis, creatively ambitious drama and comedy, and specialist sports” said Dyke during his MacTaggart lecture. In tandem, the challenge he set for BBC1 was to be “more contemporary”. All the while of course, plans are afoot to introduce new BBC digital channels: BBC3 which will “offer original British comedy, drama and music as well as providing arts, education and social action programming delivered in a way likely to be attractive to a young audience”, BBC4, is to be an “unashamedly intellectual … mixture of Radios 3 and 4 on television”, and there is also be two new BBC children’s channels, and of course the continuation of BBC News 24.

So to construct a schedule for BBC2 to take us into the autumn 2001 season, one has to be mindful of the transitional nature that the channel needs to assume. BBC3 and BBC4 are not yet with us and it is unlikely that they will play to a significant audience for some time to come. BBC1 cannot afford to break off from its ratings battle with ITV just yet, and as such it has to be down to BBC2 to start provisioning for the new arrivals in the Corporation’s family home. With these thoughts, I sat down with a blank piece of paper and set to work on producing schedules for the new improved BBC2. At first there seemed no easy way in, but taking direction from my “boss’s” speech I felt that it would be tactically naïve to ignore television’s changing landscape, and as such, thoughts of a digital age had to dictate every stroke of my autumn brush.

Re-establishment of the channel’s identity was uppermost in mind. The work carried out thus far by Jane Root had succeeded only in bringing indistinctiveness to BBC2. To me this seemed an almost unique state of affairs for a channel that, even if you hated it, always used to fulfil a definite purpose. The gentle subsidence of new comedy and youth orientated programming has paved the way for a new BBC2 identity to emerge but as of yet no new clear brand has been defined. Who is this channel for?

Scratch the surface though and one begins to identify some sense of unification. Amidst the high mindedness of Reputations and the red tomatoes of Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook, one can determine that BBC2 is now chiefly a commentator on our times. Its role is not necessarily to make judgements but to furnish us with the information to arrive at better-informed conclusions – or to simply appreciate things more. Here perhaps I had a half decent and workable manifesto with which to take the channel forward. It is Reithian, but contemporary. Not quite a slogan yet, but something to start with. My direction would be to create a channel that understood that the viewer was an intelligent beast interacting and enjoying with all manner of outside activities and interest. BBC2 would be there for you, giving your life and your lifestyle an enriched meaning. If you like cooking, we would show you things that you didn’t know about food, if you were caught up in the political demise of Michael Portillo we would contextualise it for you to allow you to understand more fully why a party characterised by long memories and loyalties could not allow him to exist; if you were concerned that the rest of the media was failing to explore the issues behind the recent racial violence in the north of England, here we would take you into the middle of it via exciting new drama. Marrying this concept to as wide an audience as possible would require substantial “braining up” as well as “dumbing down” of programmes. What use a BBC that exists to talk only to the intellectual élite or the brain dead? These people had to meet in the middle and that was what I had to do with my programmes.