BBC Digital

In this section we take a look at the changing fortunes of multichannel BBC 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.

This wasn't the first time the corporation had been involved with the idea of multichannel television. With the UK allocated five channels for 'direct broadcast by satellite', in March 1982 the Government authorised the BBC to launch services on two of those channels. One would be a subscription channel based around 'major feature films', the other a more general service known as 'Window on the World'. Both would be run on a commercial basis and not funded by the licence fee. The originally planned launch date was 1986, but despite bringing in a number of commercial partners, the costs would have been prohibitive, and so the project was abandoned in 1985. The UK's satellite channel allocation would eventually be occupied by British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB).

Then in November 1992, BBC Enterprises joined forces with Thames Television to launch UK Gold. The channel would plunder both broadcasters' archives for classic comedy, drama and music. Although UK Gold was initially available free-to-air for satellite television viewers, it soon became a part of the Sky Multichannels subscription package.

By the late 1990s, the BBC had much bigger plans to make a move into subscription television. With the launch of digital television imminent, the Radio Times dated 30 November-6 December 1996 reported that eight new channels were proposed, 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'.

Early in 1997, the BBC announced a tie-up between their commercial arm, now called BBC Worldwide, and the cable operator Telewest's content division, Flextech, to run five subscription channels. These would be 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 the existing 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 - the 'UKTV Preview 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 changed 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. One was UK Play, a transmogrified One-TV, which featured music and comedy, aimed at a youth audience. The other was UK Gold Classics, featuring a schedule of older programmes now that UK Gold had shifted focus to more recent shows - however just six months later this was replaced by UK Gold 2, which simply replayed UK Gold's daytime schedule from 6pm.

Launching in November 1998, 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 channels in the UKTV network, apart from UK Play, were predominantly based around BBC archive programming, but did produce a small amount of original material. For example, UK Style broadcast a daily programme, Radio Times, spun off from the famous magazine, featuring viewing highlights across all channels, while UK Horizons offered extended versions of BBC favourites Top Gear GTi and Tomorrow's World Plus. UK Arena was based mainly around arts, music and drama, but also featured some rarely seen archive comedy such as The Goodies, Not Only...But Also and Rutland Weekend Television. UK Play broadcast some alternative comedy, and even a few children's classics including Bod and Trumpton, but was otherwise mostly made up of original output, such as Lucas and Walliams in Rock Profile, Mark and Lard's Pop Upstairs Downstairs, The Chris Moyles Show and The Phone Zone.

The BBC's remaining new channels, meanwhile, would be licence fee-funded, free-to-air services. These four new BBC channels would launch between 1997 and 1999.

First of all came a 24-hour news channel, which 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 the 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. In November 2001, a brand new channel launched - UK Food, which took the cookery programmes from UK Style.

On the next page, ITV Digital collapses, UKTV rebrands, HD arrives, and some BBC channels begin to find themselves under threat...


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