BBC Digital

This is the second part of our look at the changing fortunes of BBC digital television and radio, including UKTV.


Following the collapse in 2002 of ONdigital (which had been renamed ITV Digital the previous year), the BBC and transmission company Crown Castle submitted 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 through 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, which had closed in September. It was joined in January 2003 by the clunkily-titled UK Bright Ideas, which showed original commissions from 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 the blandly-named UKTV Documentary and UKTV People. UKTV Style Gardens launched in February 2005, changing its name to UKTV Gardens in 2007, and 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, which had Richard and Judy as its centrepiece.

The remainder of the UKTV network was rebranded during the course of 2009, with UKTV Documentary becoming Eden, UKTV People becoming Blighty, UKTV History becoming Yesterday, UKTV Style becoming Home and UKTV Food becoming Good Food. UKTV Gardens disappeared altogether, to be replaced by a new lifestyle channel, Really. No, really.

The demise of ITV Digital in 2002 was not the end of pay television on digital terrestrial. From 2004, a more limited service, Top Up TV, operated a number of timeshared subscription channels, numbering UKTV Gold, UKTV Style and UKTV Food amongst them. With the service soon finding its capacity being reduced, it switched largely to an 'on demand' service, using a device which automatically recorded programming broadcast overnight. The rebranded GOLD and Home were eventually left as Top Up TV's only remaining linear services, both with very limited hours - the latter ridiculously available for just one hour a week! Top Up TV was not a great success, and it closed altogether in 2013.

In 2006 the BBC began to move into high definition broadcasting, with the BBC HD channel launching as a trial service in May of that year, followed by an official launch in December 2007. The channel simulcast HD programmes from the other BBC channels, filling in the rest of its schedule with other HD material from the BBC archive. It was initially available via satellite and cable, with Freeview coverage added as each region went through digital switchover (although an advance network brought the channel to a few areas earlier than this).

In November 2010, the BBC launched a national HD version of BBC1 - variants of the channel for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales would follow in subsequent years, but the full complement of English regions remains elusive. The original BBC HD channel was replaced by BBC2 HD in March 2013, which meant that programmes broadcast on other BBC channels no longer had an HD outlet. This issue was rectified, however, in December 2013 when HD versions of BBC3, BBC4, BBC News, CBBC and CBeebies were launched. Not all of these would have national coverage on Freeview - BBC4, BBC News and CBeebies HD would be carried on one of two temporary multiplexes covering around 70-75% of UK households, which are set to disappear in the early 2020s.

UKTV, which had only switched to widescreen broadcasting in January 2008, began to launch HD versions of its channels in 2010, beginning with Good Food HD.

In the 2010s, some of the BBC 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 it 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 had a much reduced budget, but promised to show all of its so-called 'long form' programming on BBC1 and BBC2 - indeed, in March 2019, a dedicated home for BBC3's programming was introduced, in a late night slot three nights a week on BBC1.

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. But 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! BBC3 regained a limited presence on linear television in March 2019, when a new late night 'zone' was introduced on BBC1 after the Ten O'Clock News three nights a week, to showcase BBC3 programming.

By the late 2010s, the UKTV network, now comprising ten channels (plus various timeshifts), had remained largely stable for nearly a decade, with the only changes since the 2008-09 rebrands being the renaming of Watch to 'W' in 2016, and in 2013 the closure of Blighty and launch of Drama. This new channel comprised archive drama and comedy, and resembled the former UKTV Drama before it changed its name to Alibi and reduced its focus to crime drama. The key difference was that this reincarnated version was available on Freeview. By 2016 half the UKTV network - Dave, Drama, Yesterday, Really and Home - could now be viewed free-to-air on terrestrial television, and these channels were enjoying increased viewing figures as a result.

Although the UKTV channel portfolio changed little in the 2010s, there were some changes in ownership. Flextech, which had been rebranded as part of Virgin Media Television in 2007, sold their stake in UKTV to the US media company Scripps Networks Interactive in 2011. This in turn was acquired by Discovery in March 2018 - which triggered a clause in the joint venture agreement which gave BBC Studios (which absorbed BBC Worldwide in April 2018) the option to buy out its partner if its ownership changed hands.

Following a great deal of speculation throughout 2018, with both ITV and Channel 4 reported to be in talks to make a joint bid with BBC Studios to buy Discovery's half of UKTV, a deal was reached in April 2019 which saw the network split up, with its channels divided up 70/30 between its two partners. The result is that ownership of Home, Really and Good Food passed to Discovery, while BBC Studios took full control of Gold, Dave, Drama, W, Alibi, Yesterday and Eden; the UKTV brand itself remained with BBC Studios. The network was formally split in June 2019.

And as for the BBC's remaining licence-funded channels, such as BBC4 and CBBC, their fate remains uncertain in an age where the corporation is being forced to cut costs in many areas. However, following the launch in February 2019 of a new channel for viewers in Scotland, 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, proved to be unfounded, while planned cuts to BBC Parliament, which could have seen all of its bespoke programming axed, appear to have been, at least partly, reversed.

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?


Previous page


Click here for a timeline of events relating to BBC and UKTV digital television and radio, along with the services that carry those channels. We also have a page looking at UKTV idents covering the period 1997-2004.


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, and some early clips of BBC Knowledge.





Links

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