What future for BBC Four?

Questions are being asked about how much longer BBC Four can remain on air. 

The TV industry is concerned about the future of BBC Four, which in the past decade has become a pale imitation of its former self, following budget cuts.

Following the announcement earlier this week that BBC Four channel editor Cassian Harrison was off on a secondment to commercial arm BBC Studios, leaving BBC Two controller Patrick Holland in charge, speculation is rife over the future of the channel.

The week of speculation ended with trade journal Broadcast quoting one insider as saying it's a sign the channel is being "quietly run down" - something the BBC flatly denies.

With the BBC under further budgetary pressure and still yet to resolve the problem that is BBC Three, it's expected whoever succeeds BBC Director-General Tony Hall this year will need to make a decision about the future of BBC Four.

What's the situation with BBC Four?

The channel's budget has been cut back. In 2010, it was still enjoying an annual budget of £55million. The last available BBC annual report from July 2019 confirmed a budget of £44million, recovering from the £38million it had available the previous year.

And it shows on-screen: BBC Four's schedule has become dominated by a large number of repeats, with relatively little new content over the course of a week's worth of viewing. Last year's BBC Annual Plan gave the channel the single objective to broadcast "at least 60 hours of originated factual programmes" over the year.

Since the closure of BBC Three's linear outlet, BBC Four has become the home of the Eurovision Semi-finals and been used as a sports overspill station - notably during the 2016 Olympics and Wimbledon.

There are questions about whether the remaining BBC Four programmes are something that could be absorbed back into BBC Two, to boost its schedule, with special live events such as extra Proms coverage still able to be broadcast via the Red Button.

However, any move to make changes or close BBC Four would come at a time when Sky Arts is understood to be moving towards switching to free-to-air, as part of Sky's bid to demonstrate its public service creditials, coinciding with an Ofcom review of public service television in the UK.