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 (now BBC Studios) under the UKTV umbrella.

BBC Choice, which 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! The channel's launch was simulcast on the internet, however. From 1st October it became generally available to the public when Sky Digital began.

From 15th November it also became available 'through an aerial' with the start of ONdigital, a consortium made up of ITV companies Carlton and Granada, who had won the licence to operate a subscription television service on three of the six multiplexes allocated to digital terrestrial broadcasting. Though the other three multiplexes were not run by the ONdigital group, the whole digital terrestrial platform was marketed under the ONdigital banner.

One of those multiplexes was to be operated by SDN, a consortium made up of S4C, United News and Media and NTL. Another was allocated jointly to ITV and Channel 4, and one was gifted to the BBC. The BBC used their capacity to carry BBC Choice, BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament alongside widescreen versions of BBC1 and BBC2.

BBC Choice 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 (or 'BBC One' - yes, really!) 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, however commercials could not be shown 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.

Unlike UK Gold, the three new channels weren't available in full on Sky's analogue satellite service, instead appearing on one channel using a timeshare arrangement (UK Horizons from 7am-2pm and 6-9pm, UK Style from 2-6pm and UK Arena from 9pm to closedown). In the spring of 1998, this switched to carry UK Horizons in full.

All four channels were available via Sky Digital from its launch in October 1998, along with two new additions - UK Play (a transmogrified One-TV), and UK Gold Classics (which was replaced by UK Gold 2 the following spring). When it launched the following month, ONdigital carried UK Gold and UK Play in full, with UK Horizons and UK Style sharing one channel, each only available on certain days of the week.

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 BBC1. It became available on all digital services when they launched in 1998. Click here for more on BBC News 24.

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 - though there were plenty of trails to come, promoting the benefits of digital television in general. The digital widescreen versions of BBC1 and BBC2 had separate continuity to the analogue versions, and this was used to cross-promote the digital-only channels much more.

The BBC also took over the previously cable-only Parliamentary Channel, and renamed it BBC Parliament, launching officially on the same day as BBC Choice. Although available in sound and vision via Sky Digital, when ONdigital began it was available in sound only due to capacity constrants.

The last of the BBC's new digital channels, BBC Learning, launched under the name 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. Again, due to a lack of capacity on the BBC's own multiplex, on digital terrestrial this was originally carried on the SDN multiplex.

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 changed its focus dramatically, and would now target 25-34 year olds with a line-up of quirky original programmes alongside '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 BBC3 and BBC4 respectively, but styled 'BBC Three' and 'BBC Four' in line with its bigger brothers which had been styled as 'BBC One' and 'BBC Two' since October 1997.

The arts-based BBC4 had little trouble getting government permission, and went on air in March 2002, but it took a great deal more kerfuffle to get the youth-orientated BBC3 approved, with the original plans being turned down due to them being insufficiently distinctive. A revised set of proposals were eventually approved, and on 8th February 2003 BBC Choice finally transformed into BBC3, 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. Click here for more on BBC digital radio.

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 then Play UK closed in September 2002.

Following the collapse in 2002 of ONdigital (which had been renamed ITV Digital the previous year), the BBC and transmission company Crown Castle put in a successful joint bid to take over the three multiplexes that ON/ITV Digital had previously operated. The BBC would control one of the multiplexes, using it to 'spread out' its existing channels, along with making BBC Parliament available in quarter-screen vision, launching a two-screen BBC News Multiscreen service, and introducing two further channel streams, then known as 'BBCi', but now better known as the 'Red Button' service, on channels 701 and 702.

Crown Castle would use the other two multiplexes to transmit a range of free-to-air channels under the 'Freeview' banner, and amongst them would be two new channels from UKTV. This was a a major departure for the operator, which up to now had ran all of its channels on a subscription basis. Launching with the start of Freeview in October 2002, UK History was also broadcast on satellite and cable where it took the place of Play UK. It was joined in January 2003 by the clunkily-named UK Bright Ideas which showedoriginal 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, including Really, Home and Drama, 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.

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 BBC3 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 BBC3 has a much reduced budget, but promises to show all of its so-called 'long form' programming on BBC1 and BBC2.

Meanwhile, BBC4 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 BBC3, types of programming unsuited to an online, on demand service. Maybe it was so as to not to incur the wrath of fans of BBC4, as that is where it would all get dumped, as soon became clear after the BBC3'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 BBC4. Most notably, the channel effectively disappeared for two weeks when it carried wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympic Games, a role taken by BBC3 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 BBC4 now the BBC's only 'spare' outlet away from BBC1 and BBC2, 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 BBC3'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 (unsuccessfully) advertised the spare capacity to potential commercial operators on its HD multiplex, it was 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 BBC3'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 BBC4, is uncertain. However, following the news that the BBC is to launch a new channel for Scotland in 2019, with a similar budget to that of BBC4, any subsequent proposal to close BBC4 (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 BBC3 and go online only?


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.


BBC Three official site
BBC Four official site
UKTV official site
BBC Choice schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Knowledge schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Three schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Four schedules at BBC Genome
BBC Choice Wikipedia entry
BBC Knowledge Wikipedia entry
BBC Three Wikipedia entry
BBC Four Wikipedia entry
UKTV Wikipedia entry

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