What the future may hold for BBC Four...

BBC Four heads to the archives

18 years after being launched as the BBC's high-brow arts and culture channel, it's all change: BBC Four in its current form is likely to end, but the channel isn't technically being closed down.

In a surprise move, the BBC says it is looking at options to make BBC Four available as a global subscription service for audiences outside of the UK, while turning it in to an archive channel.

Since the annual report was published this morning raising that prospect, questions have been raised as to what the global BBC Four service will look like and how it will  be accessed. Questions also remain about what the new, archive focused BBC Four service will look like for viewers in the UK, especially as BBC Three looks set to muscle its way back on to linear Electronic Programme Guides, raising the possibility that BBC Four could be demoted, as was done in Scotland on Freeview when the BBC Scotland channel was launched.

With new commissions from BBC Four making the move to BBC Two, subject to Ofcom approval, the signs are that the current linear BBC Four service will be gradually marginalised so that when a decision over BBC Four's UK linear future is made, the number of objections will be low.

Commercial broadcasters have been very sensitive to previous proposals allow the BBC to make more of its older programmes online, with rivals fearing the BBC's clout would drown out their own on-demand services, which is why the BBC has in the past been extremely restricted in regards to making older content available. ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have been more comfortable with the BBC's involvement in BritBox, as it allows them to share the same platform and jointly monetize older programmes.  But much of the niche, archive content from the world of BBC Four that will appear on iPlayer for UK viewers is unlikely to worry commercial broadcasters, although they will want safeguards.

But what would a global Archive-based BBC Four offer to global audiences?  BritBox, of which the BBC is a partner, is planning to roll its service out to audiences in more countries and where it has already launched is already a vehicle for the BBC to make older drama and comedy series available to viewers.  As part of a £300million deal with Discovery, the BBC's Natural History programmes are destined for a new global streaming service (outside of the UK, Ireland and China).  On linear TV, natural history is also served by the BBC Earth channel in some countries. The service would not have the global streaming rights for the types of foreign language drama the channel was known for.

This leaves a range of arts, cooking, culture, history, music, science and other specialist content from the archive as being available for international exploitation - but depending on content and whether the BBC has any surprises up its sleeve - that may only attract a very niche audience internationally.

But what it does do is provide an option for BBC Four to effectively self-fund itself through subscriptions from abroad, replacing money from the licence fee, which can then be used to maintain the rest of the BBC's output. Infrastructure set up for the management of an international subscription service could eventually be scaled up for use in the UK, to ring-fence BBC content to licence fee payers - or if the BBC's funding model is changed - subscribers.

As the BBC's plans will mean changes to the BBC's operating licences, Ofcom will need to scrutinize the changes and put them up for review with assessments and consultations. At which point more concrete information about the plans will be made public.

All of the plans are however dependent on the outcome of the current pandemic and its affect on BBC budgets. The BBC has stressed that further decisions are not likely until the autumn.