BBC Digital

In this section we take a look at the changing fortunes of BBC digital television and radio, covering not only the licence fee-funded services, but also the various joint venture channels operated by BBC Worldwide under the UKTV umbrella.

BBC Choice, which was launched on 23rd September 1998, has the honour of being the UK's first channel to broadcast exclusively on digital - and for the first week was only available to people inside BBC Television Centre! From 1st October it became available to the general public when Sky Digital began, when widescreen versions of BBC One and BBC Two also launched, and then 'through an aerial' from the start of ONdigital on 15th November.

The channel had the working titles of BBC Showcase, BBC Catchup and Catchup TV, and was part of a suite of channels planned by the BBC in the late 1990s to spearhead its move into subscription broadcasting. According to the Radio Times dated 30 November-6 December 1996, eight new channels were planned, covering education, the arts, leisure and lifestyle, news and entertainment, as well as 'services showing classic programmes from the BBC archive'. Radio 1 was also set to make its move into television, with a music channel named One-TV which would 'feature the station's presenters and live events'.

Then early in 1997 the BBC announced a tie-up between their commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and the cable operator Telewest's 'content' division, Flextech, to run five subscription channels - BBC Horizon (documentaries), BBC Style (lifestyle), BBC Arena (arts), BBC Learning (education) and BBC Showcase (entertainment). They would be based around past and present BBC programming, and would initially only be available through cable. One-TV was one of three further channels also under discussion, along with BBC Catchup/Catchup TV and BBC Sport/BBC Sports Entertainment.

It was planned that, unlike their existing subscription channel UK Gold, the BBC would retain full editorial control of these new channels. But there was one sticking point - Flextech wanted them to be supported by advertising, but the BBC did not want commercials to appear on BBC-branded channels.

And so a compromise was reached. When they launched on cable on 1st November 1997, the joint venture channels with Flextech were placed under the umbrella of UKTV. Hence BBC Horizon became UK Horizons, BBC Style became UK Style and BBC Arena became UK Arena. These joined a revamped UK Gold. Each of the channels would carry advertising, but the BBC would retain full editorial control, providing the programming and deciding the schedules and on-screen presentation.

Before long, UK Horizons joined UK Gold on the Sky's analogue satellite service, and then in the autumn of 1998 all four channels became available on digital services, along with two new additions - UK Play (a transmogrified One-TV), and UK Gold Classics (later renamed UK Gold 2).

The BBC's remaining new channels, meanwhile, would be licence fee-funded, free-to-air services. The 24-hour news channel, which had also been in the works for some time, began on cable on 9th November 1997, with an overnight simulcast on BBC One. It became available on all digital services when they launched in 1998. BBC Learning eventually became BBC Knowledge and started on 1st June 1999, offering a line-up of educational programmes aimed at a wide age range, from toddlers to adults.

BBC Showcase and BBC Catchup became one and the same, and was eventually christened BBC Choice. Launching in September 1998, and run on a shoestring budget, it would operate as a 'back-up' channel for BBC One and BBC Two with repeats, theme nights, behind the scenes features and some original programming. It would also provide extended coverage of sporting events and music festivals. Plus, for two hours each evening from 10.00, the channel would split into four variants, one for each nation of the UK, which included regional news, sport and discussion programmes. Click here for more on BBC Choice's programming throughout its lifetime.

The launch was relatively low-key, with only a trailer featuring Pauline Quirke used to promote the channel on the analogue services around launch time. The digital widescreen versions of BBC One and BBC Two had separate continuity to the analogue versions, and this was used to cross-promote the digital-only channels much more.

Unfortunately, right from the start, the cheap-and-cheerful BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge both scored pitifully low ratings. So BBC Knowledge was soon sent upmarket to become a serious documentary channel, while 26 year-old Stuart Murphy was drafted in from UK Play to try and sort Choice out. Under his direction, the channel changes its focus dramatically, and would now target 25-34 year olds with a line-up of quirky original programmes and 'catch-up' repeats from its bigger brothers.

Then in August 2000, plans were announced to transform Choice and Knowledge into more substantial channels, to be named BBC Three and BBC Four respectively. The arts-based BBC Four had little trouble getting government permission, and went on air in March 2002, but it took a great deal more kerfuffle to get the plans for the youth-orientated BBC Three approved. Stuart Murphy's dream was finally realised on 8th February 2003 when BBC Choice transformed into BBC Three, much bigger budgeted than its predecessor but sadly, as it turned out, somewhat blander.

Using the daytime hours of each channel, would be two new children's channels - CBeebies for pre-school children, and CBBC for their older siblings, which launched together in February 2002. Although children's programmes continued to air on the traditional channels, the two channels became the sole homes for BBC children's output at the start of 2013, following the completion of digital switchover.

The BBC also announced the launch of a series of digital radio stations, in order to help kickstart the DAB revolution. Three entirely new stations, codenamed Network X, Network Y and Network Z, were planned, in addition to a nationwide relaunch of the Midlands-only Asian Network, and a part-time spin off of Radio 5 Live, 5 Live Sports Extra. Each of these new stations went on air during the course of 2002. Network Y launched as 6 Music, based around the BBC's extensive archive of sessions and music documentaries. It was followed by Network X, launching as 1Xtra, aimed at a young black audience, and finally Network Z, which became known as BBC7 (later Radio 7), showcasing the BBC's comedy and drama archive.

The UKTV network, meanwhile, was to go through a bewildering array of changes, starting with the demise of UK Arena, which had presumably proved to be too esoteric to be commercially successful. It was replaced in March 2000 with the broader appeal of UK Drama. The following November UK Play was renamed Play UK; the remainder of the UKTV network joined it by moving away from BBC-style presentation in May 2001.

UK Food launched in November 2001, and Play UK closed in September 2002. The latter's place on satellite and cable was taken by UK History, however it also became the first UKTV channel to appear on the newly-launched Freeview platform. It was joined in January 2003 by the clunkily-named UK Bright Ideas. Conceived primarily for Freeview, though available on other platforms, this channel showed original commissions taken from the subscription-only UK Style and UK Food. In November 2003 UK Gold 2 was replaced by the comedy-based UK G2, which partly made up for the demise of Play UK.

In March 2004 all of the channels were rebranded as 'UKTV' (eg UKTV Gold), and UK Horizons closed, to be replaced by UKTV Documentary and UKTV People. UKTV Style Gardens launched in February 2005, changing its name to UKTV Gardens in 2007. UKTV Drama extended its hours and broadened its output to include comedy programmes.

The most unexpected change, however, took place in October 2007 when UKTV G2 was renamed Dave. The success of this rebranding, only partly attributed to its availability on Freeview (where it replaced UKTV Bright Ideas), led UKTV to rebrand its entire network, losing the 'UKTV' from each channel name in the process. And so from October 2008 UKTV Gold became the dedicated comedy channel GOLD (which apparently stood for Go On Laugh Daily), and UKTV Drama became the crime channel Alibi. They were joined by a brand new channel called Watch (now known simply as 'W') with Richard and Judy as its centrepiece. The remainder of the UKTV network was rebranded during the course of 2009. In subsequent years, several more of UKTV's channels have been added to Freeview, and enjoyed increased viewing figures as a result.

Back to the BBC itself, and in the next decade, several of those digital channels launched in the heady days of the early 2000s found themselves under threat, barely a decade after they had launched. First of all, in 2010 controversial plans were announced to close both 6 Music and the Asian Network, due to low listener numbers. The publicity surrounding the plans led to a massive increase in listening figures for 6 Music, and a high profile campaign to save the station led the BBC Trust to reject the proposal. Meanwhile the Asian Network was also spared the axe when its was found that serving the audience in other ways would actually cost more than keeping it as a single national network. There was one change that did go through as part of the 2010 proposals, however, and that was the rebranding of Radio 7 as Radio 4 Extra, which also led to an increase in listeners.

The BBC's digital television services weren't safe either. In 2014 another controversial plan was announced, this time to close BBC Three as a conventional television channel, and move it online. This time campaigns to save the channel were not successful, and two years later, in February 2016, the move went ahead. The online version of BBC Three has a much reduced budget, but promises to show all of its so-called 'long form' programming on BBC One and BBC Two.

Meanwhile, BBC Four didn't escape unscathed. During the public consultation period, no mention was made of what would happen what happen to the live coverage of sport and music carried on BBC Three, types of programming unsuited to an online, on demand service. Maybe it was so as to not to incur the wrath of fans of BBC Four, as that is where it would all get dumped, as soon became clear after the BBC Three's closure. Throughout the summer of 2016, all sorts of live coverage, including the semi-finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, World Cup football, and music festivals such as Glastonbury, T in the Park and even Radio 1's Big Weekend, all turned up on BBC Four. Most notably, the channel effectively disappeared for two weeks when it carried wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympic Games, a role taken by BBC Three in 2012, and going completely against the channel's remit of being 'a place to think', and up to now a sport-free zone. With BBC Four now the BBC's only 'spare' outlet away from BBC One and BBC Two, it seemed the channel was increasingly becoming a dumping ground for all the programming the BBC can't, or don't want to, put on its main channels - maybe it should be renamed BBC Choice!

CBBC meanwhile, benefitted from BBC Three's closure, gaining an extra two hours of airtime each evening from 7-9pm. However even by the time the proposals had been approved by the BBC Trust, no plan had been put forward with what to do with the former channel's bandwidth post-9pm. And, incredibly, that continues to be the case - once the CBBC channel ends programmes for the day, it simply broadcasts an animated downtime caption - a criminal waste of bandwidth during prime viewing hours. Although the BBC have advertised the spare capacity to potential commercial operators on its HD multiplex, it is unable to do the same for the SD capacity due to it existing on a public service multiplex. Perhaps the space could be used to broadcast BBC Three's online programming!

In an age where the corporation is being forced to cut costs in many areas, the fate of the remaining digital channels, including CBBC and BBC Four, is uncertain. However, following the news that the BBC is to launch a new channel for Scotland in 2018, with a similar budget to that of BBC Four, any subsequent proposal to close BBC Four (or to 'move it online') would be a kick in the teeth and would surely cause uproar. Meanwhile, suggestions that the BBC News channel could close, or merge with its international counterpart BBC World News, have proved to be unfounded. But with younger viewers turning away from traditional television to their online devices, could the CBBC channel eventually follow the lead of BBC Three and go online only?


Videos

From our YouTube channel, Kaye Adams extols the virtues of BBC digital television in this nine minute programme, Noughts and One, broadcast on BBC2 on 15th November 1998. (This video also appears on our BBC Choice page). Also, we have a short clip of a Sky Digital promo featuring idents for the digital channels; a promo featuring Griff Rhys Jones reminding viewers that a digital TV subscription is not required to view the new BBC digital channels; some early clips of BBC Knowledge; and a selection of UKTV idents from 1999-2000 and 2001.







Text copyright © Robert Williams, images and video copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation and UKTV