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BBC plays down BBC Four closure threat

Tony HallThe BBC’s director of strategy has said the corporation does not have plans to close BBC Four, despite the arts network being touted as one of a number of services that could be cut to save money.

Speaking on BBC Radio4’s The World at One show yesterday, James Purnell said “we’re not ruling anything in or out, but we don’t have a plan to close BBC Four”, describing the digital TV network as a “great service, doing great things”.

However, the comments came after BBC director general Tony Hall outlined the corporation’s vision of an “open BBC for the internet age”, in which new services such as a digital children’s offering called iPlay, a cultural service called Ideas Service and streamed news output could were identified as possible replacements for existing linear TV services like the BBC News channel and kids networks CBBC and CBeebies.

The 99-page document that the BBC issued yesterday, detailing its plans for BBC’s programmes and services in the next Charter period noted: “Streaming news may replace rolling news. Children may prefer iPlay to scheduled television. The Ideas Service might mean we no longer need BBC Four.

“In an ideal world, we would move with the audience. Although much of the audience is consuming in new ways, a large part continue to enjoy radio and television as they always have done – live and through channels. For the next Charter, we need to serve both audiences.”

Purnell said yesterday: “[As] we said in the document we want to move at the pace of our audience, we want to do these new services. If in time they start to do the job better than existing ones, then we would be able to make some changes.”

The proposals came ahead of the BBC’s 2016 charter renewal and are borne out of a need to make a “cumulative saving of close to 20% over five years” – the equivalent of an annual saving of around 3.5% of the BBC’s cost base.

The BBC described a “tough financial challenge” in the coming years and said that before the new charter period begins it must find at least £150 million (US$230.5 million) to mitigate falling TV penetration. Over the following five years it estimates it will have to absorb inflation at 2% a year—the equivalent of £400 million a year – and also invest an additional £150 million on its proposed new services.

“This means a total saving of £700 million a year by 2021/22,” said the BBC. “We believe that we can deliver this within the budget agreement, although it will require many tough choices. We will inevitably have to either close or reduce some services.”

Elsewhere, the BBC proposed expansions to the World Service – ones that would not be funded “within the confines of the budget agreement with the BBC”, but after further discussions with the government.

These include a new digital service in Russia on platforms like YouTube and Rutube.ru to along with TV bulletins for neighbouring states. “We would also start a feasibility study for a satellite TV channel for Russia,” said the BBC.