Can the digital channels step into the void being made by the proposed cuts to Storyville?
While angry film-makers slam BBC Storyvillecuts, digital channels welcome the chance to step into the void. But can they fill it?

The BBC's proposed cut to the Storyvillebudget, as part of the corporation's wider cost-saving measures, has provoked an angry response and a bitter debate.

The corporation is understood to have proposed a cut of more than 50% to Storyville's annual budget, slashing it from £2.2m to £1m. This could result in it buying in programmes rather than financing UK co-productions with broadcasters from around the world - although this is a claim the BBC has denied.

BBC director-general Mark Thompson is charged with identifying £2bn worth of cuts by 2013 to close the gap between the BBC's funding aspirations and the actual sum it was awarded in January's licence fee settlement with the government.

With Storyvillein the firing line, many are questioning whether a strand that is clearly in the BBC's public service remit should be on the chopping block.

The proposed cuts have prompted discussions over the value of the strand to the viewer, the documentary-making industry and the role of the BBC in public service broadcasting.

'Crown jewel' of docs

Storyvilleis viewed by the industry as the jewel in the crown of UK documentary-making, attracting top film-making talent. Spike Lee's film about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, When the Levees Broke, appeared as part of the strand, which has also aired films created by acclaimed film-maker Werner Herzog.

Other big names have been vocal with their support. Kevin Macdonald, whose Oscar-winning documentary One Day in Septemberappeared on Storyvillelast year, added his voice to the debate, claiming that the BBC has 'forgotten its remit to produce informative programmes'.

'I think it is totally outrageous that the BBC is so savagely cutting the budget of the one remaining strand of quality documentaries on the whole network,' he says.

The argument for saving Storyvillebecause of the BBC's responsibilities under its remit is a sound one. The BBC has a number of 'public purposes' under its charter, includ ing 'promoting education and learning; stimulating creativity and cultural excellence; representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities and bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK.'

Tom Roberts, the founder of October Films - who is behind an online campaign to save Storyvillethat has already received signatures of support from more than 2,600 film-makers, organisations and funding bodies including Werner Herzog, Sundance and SBS - says that cutting Storyville's budget makes no sense politically, socially or commercially.

' Storyvillealmost singlehandedly satisfies the BBC's public purposes. It will be a catastrophic mistake on behalf of the BBC and a violation of the charter if this goes ahead,' he says.

Nurture new talent

Another argument for retaining the current level of funding is that the strand is seen as a way of nurturing new talent and allowing them to work with big name film-makers. 'It is like killing the unborn. We won't know what talent would have come out of it if it goes.'

The loss of Storyvillewould mean that documentary-makers would have to find new funding and airtime in the UK with many of the digital channels, including the History Channel, Discovery, Sky Arts and terrestrial Channel 4 benefiting.

Richard Melman, channel director at the History Channel, believes any budget cut for Storyvillewouldn't have a significant effect on the film-making industry, but would have repercussions for viewers.

'[Docs are] why I pay my licence fee, not reality TV, but Storyvilleis not the last refuge of observational documentaries. Digital channels will be homes for these programmes in one way or another but I do history, I can't do the spread of programmes Storyvillecan,' he says.

With Storyvillefacing cuts, the BBC is spending more than £400,000 per episode on US import Heroes. The yearly budget of Storyvilleamounts to 5.5 episodes of Heroes.

Digital opportunities

John Cassy, channel manager at Sky Arts, says the public is sensing a change in the priorities of major broadcasters. And it's a gap he's more than willing to fill, arguing that the BBC's possible decision will provide new opportunities for digital players.

'There is clearly a perception among the public that mainstream terrestrial broadcasters' commitment to quality documentaries is on the wane and they are looking elsewhere for these shows. The retreat from this distinctive style of programming is serving up opportunities for other broadcasters who are looking to serve that market,' he says.

One of those broadcasters is Discovery. Dan Brooke, general manager at Discovery Networks, UK, believes digital channels will benefit from the BBC cuts if they go ahead as film-makers cast their nets wider for funding and airtime. 'They will be warmly received,' he says. 'I suspect film-makers will always have the ingenuity to find ways of, and people, to fund their projects.'

Discovery itself is not ruling out a move to air more heavily authored documentaries in the Storyvillestyle. 'Are we looking to have a change of policy if the BBC changes its policy? Not currently, but not a definite no,' Brooke says.

Kevin Lygo, C4's director of tele-vision and content, said in a speech at the Edinburgh International TV Festival, that the broadcaster would clear the schedule of ratings hits such as Celebrity Big Brotherto make way for programmes that would better serve its public service remit.

Home of quality

Lygo's announcement could be seen as a move to position C4 as the new home of quality documentaries.

C4 already includes the most directly comparable strand to Storyville, True Storieson digital channel More 4, as well as documentary strand Four Docs; its talent development initiative 4 Talent, Cutting Edgeand mini-documentary strand 3 Minute Wonder.

Angus MacQueen, C4 head of docs, says the broadcaster is implementing a programme to nurture new talent. 'The new strand First Cutsstarts in the autumn and slots into a framework that includes 3 Minute Wonders, Four Docsand Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation,' he says. 'Our aim is to attract and enable as wide a range of diverse talents and voices as possible.'

However, despite reassurances from the digital channels that documentary-making will not be adversely affected in the UK if the cuts go ahead, October Films' Roberts believes that nobody can match the prestige and selling power of the BBC, and ultimately the cutting of the Storyvillebudget will be a rope around the neck of the industry.

'It is the extinction of the habitat to the point where it won't be viable to run a business anymore. It is an apocalyptic moment,' he says.

' Storyvillefilms on the BBC make it an easier sell overseas - it gets you more access by being broadcast on the BBC. Discovery is not interested in these films. Would Spike Lee work on Discovery?'