Where Next For BBC2?

At the time of its launch in 1964, BBC2 was positioned as the ‘alternative’ to the established mainstream broadcasters of the day – BBC1 and ITV. But now, with a comprehensive range of television options available, what purpose does the second channel serve as it now enters its 46th year – and can it continue to be an innovator?

Launch, innovation and diversity

BBC2 was an innovative channel from the very beginning. While BBC1 and ITV had previously broadcast on the 405-line VHF system, BBC2 was only available on the then-new 625-line UHF format. This meant viewers had to convert to new technology in order to receive the service. The move to 625-line allowed the development of new services such as colour TV, itself previewed on BBC2 before its rollout to the other channels, and switching off of the 405-line service in 1985.

Although BBC2′s opening night was famously aborted due to a power cut, it eventually found its feet and established itself as part of the broadcasting landscape.

The BBC continued to innovate across the media following BBC2′s success, with the advent of projects such as ‘simulcasting’, where a TV channel and radio station would broadcast the same programme simultaneously to create a ‘stereo’ effect. This concept ended with the development of true stereo TV, and today digital delay would make simulcasting difficult. Even within the confines of Ceefax, BBC2 was able to offer an alternative to BBC1, and at one point had a different name (Orbit). Today, content such as business, foreign travel and community access pages are only available to analogue viewers on BBC2, though the digital Red Button text service does not discriminate content by channel in this way.

BBC2 has also had the capacity to incubate new talent not considered mainstream enough for the larger channel. This allowed new voices and styles to gain the oxygen of exposure. A notable example of this was Not The Nine O’Clock News – so named because it was scheduled opposite BBC1′s bulletin – which gave early airtime to a group of comedians and writers who would later go on to further prominence elsewhere.

Programming expansion

BBC2 has also been able to extend the range and breadth of the BBC’s output beyond that which could be slotted onto BBC1; this has allowed much more comprehensive coverage of news and sports events, and additional programming for particular groups and sectors within society. The launch of Newsnight in 1980, for instance, allowed more in depth coverage of key news issues than BBC1′s more concise bulletins could provide.

The Beeb has also been able to shuffle content between channels as required, either to reflect a show’s popularity (The Weakest Link, Have I Got News For You) or to make room for a new development (such as the relocation of schools’ programmes from BBC1 to BBC2 in 1983). Some shows have made multiple moves – The X-Files, at the height of MulderandScullyomania, moved up to BBC1, but was back on BBC2 by the end of the run, while MasterChef – binned by BBC1 after a decade, then revived by BBC2 – is going to BBC1 for its next run. This isn’t a new idea, though. Match of the Day began on BBC2 in 1964 but moved to BBC1 just a couple of years later. Meanwhile, some shows moved down the list: The Simpsons was a hit on BBC2 after flopping on BBC1, for instance.

BBC2 was also able to develop the Corporation’s coverage of culture, with the likes of Arena and The Late Show providing talking points and series like The Old Grey Whistle Test and Later… providing a more credible, cutting edge counterpoint to the mainstream chart-led Top of the Pops (which ended up on BBC2 in 2005 before its death the following year). The channel also contributed to the development of youth-focused TV in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with DEF II, after poaching Janet Street-Porter from Channel 4′s pacy magazine Network 7. The evening slot, which had previously been dominated by repeats and old films, became the home of a variety of original and imported content aimed at a modern audience. Although the DEF II name was dropped in the early ’90s, shows such as Malcolm in the Middle and The Simpsons meant the slot retained a youth feel into the 21st century.

Children’s output has also grown on the second station over time. Until the ‘90s, the bulk of the BBC’s kids’ TV went out on BBC1 – weekday afternoons and Saturday mornings. More recently, Sunday provided a second morning of CBBC output, with BBC2 – previously largely empty on weekend mornings – selected to carry this. Later, the mid-‘90s saw the introduction of a weekday CBBC Breakfast Show, the first regular all-kids breakfast TV service on a UK terrestrial channel. Again, with BBC1′s breakfast slot already booked up, BBC2 took on the new project. By 2006, and the permanent move of Saturday morning content to BBC2, the channel was now providing more kids’ programming than BBC1 – though by this time the BBC also had two dedicated all-day childrens’ channels (CBBC and CBeebies).

The BBC has used BBC2 to reflect the nations and regions of Britain. Although English regional programming is now all on BBC1 (due to digital carriage issues), BBC2 continues to offer extensive opted-out programming to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Digital opt-outs in Wales even had their own branding – BBC2W – for several years, but this has now been recombined with the analogue version to smooth the passage to switchover. In many cases, though, these opt-outs result in networked programming being omitted or rescheduled. This, though, is less of a problem given the network shows can now be seen on iPlayer shortly after their original broadcast, and by satellite viewers able to choose which regional variant they want to watch.

Into the digital age and beyond

Many have suggested sectors of BBC2′s home ground have been sidelined onto BBC3 and 4, with BBC3 taking on the mantle of exposing new and risky content, and BBC4 absorbing much of the upmarket remit. This has led to a sense of BBC2 being seen as the weakest link in the BBC’s chain of channels.

There are several ways to look at this. It’s possible some past shows which premiered on BBC2 (The Day Today, The Fast Show, Look Around You, The Office, The Young Ones) would, had the channels been around, have premiered on BBC3 or BBC4. However, it’s also true there are some shows which wouldn’t have been seen were it not for the newer stations (from Snuff Box and Cowards to Grownups and Never Mind The Full Stops, there are numerous BBC3/4 shows which have never transferred to the bigger channels).

Additionally, these never channels can develop talent and ideas that go on to make a bigger splash elsewhere. Recently, some shows have moved up from BBC3 or BBC4 to become part of the BBC2 schedule – though many of these, including QI, Torchwood and Gavin and Stacey – have since moved on again to BBC1. Additionally, despite their wide availability (free to the millions of homes with digital TV), the digital channels are still viewed in small numbers, and shows even now don’t really get publicity or acclaim until they turn up on one of what’s still know as ‘the terrestrials’.

But where does this leave BBC2 today? In its early years it was the only alternative; now there are myriad options. So BBC2 has set itself on a perch somewhere between the mainstream and the alternative. Hiving off the edgier content to BBC3 and BBC4 has actually given the channel more breathing room, as it no longer has to be quite as diverse as it used to be. And there are still things BBC2 does that none of the other channels do.

If the BBC2 of today was to be summed up in a soundbite, it would be ‘TV for the way we live’ – it is a huge driver of the BBC’s provision of lifestyle, documentary and magazine content. Programmes like Top Gear (mixing motoring and masculine culture), Horizon (bringing complex subjects to life in a range of entertaining, engaging ways) and The Hairy Bikers (part food guide, part buddy travelogue) would really only fit on BBC2, and may stick out like a sore thumb when repeated on other networks. BBC2 is also home to The Learning Zone – where we now find the bulk of the Corporation’s purely educational output. And then there’s Newsnight: now pretty much the only BBC news programme not simulcast on the News channel, it has retained its own unique identity and presentational style at a time when all other BBC news content is being converged into a continuous, homogenous whole.

Given this, perhaps we could expect BBC2 to evolve, in effect, into ‘Radio 4 with pictures’; a wide range of comedy, drama, documentaries, regular magazines and one-off specials, looking at a wide range of subjects and featuring a diverse array of voices. Radio 4, of course, makes that work beautifully. A televised equivalent, if handled correctly, could be just as worthwhile.

BBC2, meanwhile, as it enters its 45th year, continues to innovate. While the BBC’s newer channels spearhead the Corporation’s push to digital, and as BBC HD encourages viewers to upgrade their equipment just as BBC2 did for the 625-line launch, BBC2 has been selected for another major job in the digital switchover. And, fittingly, just as its appearance on UHF heralded a new era, so its disappearance from the platform will herald the end of this same age.

In areas undergoing ‘DSO’, BBC2 will blank out around two to four weeks before the rest of the analogue channels make their excuses and leave. The idea is that those who are dragging their feet over digital will be given an ultimatum to pull their socks up and sign up for new equipment in order to view BBC2 again. Thus the channel has come full circle back to its original role from all of 45 years ago.