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Last Updated:  Friday, 28 February, 2003, 11:42 GMT
BBC Four's mixed birthday report
The Falklands Play on BBC Four
The Falklands Play: One of the highlights of the last 12 months
Arts and culture digital TV channel BBC Four celebrates its first birthday on Sunday.

When BBC Four launched in March 2002 it promoted itself as a refuge for arts and culture-lovers, telling viewers that "everybody needs a place to think".

One year on, not quite "everybody" has sought sanctuary in its highbrow documentaries, current affairs and drama, but it has claimed success in establishing its place in the UK's digital TV melee.

Almost half of all digital viewers - 12 million people - have watched it at some point during its 12-month existence, the channel says.

Digital television can stand for real quality
Roly Keating
Controller, BBC Four
And five nominations for Royal Television Society (RTS) Awards - a record for a digital channel - have been held up as vindication for the time and money spent.

"These RTS nominations prove that digital television can stand for real quality," the channel's controller Roly Keating said.

"They're a tribute to the quality of talent we've been lucky enough to attract to the channel in its first year."

He said the channel's viewer base has been "steadily expanding", and that reaching half the digital audience was a "particularly satisfying achievement".

The viewer base may be steadily expanding, but it started from a very low base, and is still a long way off matching the ratings of its sister digital channels BBC Three and BBC News 24.

But ratings are not the only way to judge success, and critics have given mixed verdicts on the channel's performance.

It's been badly scheduled, rather inaccessible - and I speak as somebody who thought I'd be watching it a lot
Maggie Brown
Media Guardian
"In the ratings terms, it hasn't done fantastically - but then the BBC will say that it wasn't meant to and that it is always a niche channel," Leigh Holmwood of industry magazine Broadcast said.

"In the amount of coverage that it's got and the number of opinion-formers that are talking about it, it probably has been a success."

Media Guardian writer Maggie Brown said its impact had not been huge.

"It had a tremendous marketing campaign as the 'place to think' - but I think it's been rather badly scheduled, rather inaccessible, and I speak as somebody who thought I'd be watching it a lot," she said.

It launched with documentary The Man Who Destroyed Everything, about performance artist Michael Landy - typical of what was to come and the recipient of one of its RTS nominations.

Dinner With Portillo on BBC Four
Dinner With Portillo: A recent variation on the discussion theme
But early high-profile offerings, such as drama-documentary Surrealissimo, about Salvador Dali and starring Ewan Bremner and Stephen Fry, failed to make a splash.

The channel points to documentaries about autism and the North Korean football team of 1966 as examples of its success - and its versatility.

Other highlights have included premières of The Falklands Play - abandoned by the BBC in the 1980s - and a broadcast of new opera Sophie's Choice and West End plays.

World cinema has been an important plank in its schedule, and forthcoming high-profile films like Amores Perros are likely to raise its reputation among film fans.

It has also prided itself on providing news from a global perspective.

Its recent eye-catching offerings have included Dinner With Portillo, in which groups of commentators sat around a table with the politician to discuss issues of the day.

They are trying to... give it a bit more of a sense of humour because it can be a bit worthy at the moment
Leigh Holmwood
Broadcast magazine
But the channel's first crossover hit may be its latest prize acquisition, Curb Your Enthusiasm, the new sitcom written by and starring Seinfeld co-creator Larry David.

Its first episode was shown on Wednesday and the channel will hope that it can match the success it has enjoyed in the United States.

It was named the best comedy series of 2002 at the Golden Globe Awards in the US.

Ms Brown said it needs a breakthrough success.

"It just lacks any form of presence in the market and character," she said.

"Some of the highbrow presentations of operas sent me screaming away. I don't know what's gone wrong with it really. I flick across it and I never find any entry points."

Mr Holmwood agreed that it has been too dry so far.

"They are trying to give it more breadth - bring some more comedy and drama and maybe give it a bit more of a sense of humour because it can be a bit worthy at the moment," he said.

The BBC can also use the channel to answer arguments about dumbing down - and that means its ratings performance is less of a problem than it may be.

But if more people do not discover its "place to think" over the next 12 months, more questions are likely to be asked.




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