Digital BBC4 looks to be 'outward-looking and global-minded'

LONDON — Pubcaster the BBC is gambling on bringing the arts in from the cold with its new free-to-air digital culture channel, BBC4, which revealed its full program lineup Thursday.

Aimed at upscale viewers who are increasingly disenchanted by the populism of the mainstream channels, BBC4 will focus on drama, serious music, documentaries, a nightly global news show and world cinema.

BBC4 controller Roly Keating said: “The channel will be outward-looking and global-minded. It’s for people who want more from television — more depth, more range, more stimulus for the mind.

‘Surprise and challenge’

“We want it to surprise, delight and challenge — covering the worlds of science, business, the arts, current affairs, history and politics.”

Critics have claimed that BBC4, which bows March 2 with a simulcast on terrestrial net BBC2, is underfunded and will be used by the pubcaster as a dumping ground for difficult programming that was once prominent on core services BBC1 and BBC2.

At £35 million ($50 million), excluding the cost of the five-nights-a-week 30-minute 8 p.m. news program, Keating reckoned he has enough money to provide an exciting and stimulating sked, and claimed only 15% of the programming lineup will be bought off the shelf.

“There will be no slippage of arts and current affairs from BBC1 and 2 to 4,” he pledged. “If anything, the movement is likely to be the other way.”

Full plate

The launch lineup looks promising. Highlights include the Salvador Dali-inspired drama documentary “Surrealissimo,” starring Stephen Fry; “Goya: Crazy Like a Genius,” presented by art critic Robert Hughes; legit works Peter Nichols’ “A Day in the Death of Joe Egg” and Peter Brook’s “Hamlet, the Trials of Henry Kissinger,” using newly declassified U.S. government documents to assess the controversial politician’s career; and a weeklong natural history special, “Of Apes and Men.”

Along with the two new kids channels, CBeebies and CBBC, launched Monday, the BBC is hoping BBC4 and the planned youth entertainment station, BBC3 (yet to be greenlit by the government), will persuade auds to buy into digital.

But it remains to be seen whether BBC4 can be successfully marketed to a suspicious and even cynical public, and what impact it will have on the struggling pay TV arts channel Artsworld, partly owned by Sky.

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