Your choice 

1 January 2003

BBC Choice at the moment may be picking up respectable ratings compared to its multichannel opposition, but that’s perhaps because it is deliberately aiming ‘low’ at the moment.

Don’t believe me? Well, consider for a moment that BBC Choice is meant to be a major entertainment channel produced by the BBC and will soon be on an equal footing with the BBC’s two existing analogue terrestrial services once it gets renamed to BBC Three.

BBC Three

But first, here’s a brief history lesson. BBC Choice was the first general entertainment channel for a UK audience to be launched by the BBC since the introduction of BBC-2 back in 1964.

And like BBC-2, BBC Choice was launched using a new method of transmission; in BBC-2’s case it was 625 lines and UHF (as opposed to 405 lines and VHF). This started to bring the UK in line with post-war CCIR recommendations by introducing the standard being used by the bulk of mainland Europe.

As for BBC Choice, it was launched as a digital-only channel; indeed it had launched before domestic digital receiving equipment became available for the general public to purchase, and the bulk of viewers in its very early days were chipset makers and receiver testers.

This state of affairs thankfully didn’t last long, as the UK launched a digital public service soon afterwards. (Digital television is one field that the UK is a genuine pioneer compared with almost every other country, and even now many countries are still only in the early planning stages for digital broadcasting networks).

Despite the initially minuscule audience, BBC Choice was operated as a fully-fledged channel and had a proper schedule and its own programming.

The nature of the channel was relatively simple to follow in concept – it was basically a mixture of repeats (a ‘catch-up’ chance to see selected programmes again) combined with low-budget original programming, with extended sports coverage thrown in for good measure (such as Wimbledon tennis).

And despite all the odds against it, BBC Choice somehow worked very well as a channel – there was a cohesion between the types of programming on offer and the repeats were well considered in their nature.

There was also a “Pick of the Week” on Saturday evenings which simply repeated the ‘most talked-about programming of the week’, which is a simple but effective concept – providing that the programming isn’t just what the BBC wants to get noticed, as opposed to what the viewers really want to see again.

The original programming wasn’t bad either, and producers often succeeded in disguising a minuscule production budget to bring minor miracles to the screen such as “Backstage” (a programme that went behind the scenes at various parts of the BBC).

But what made the channel special in its early days were the theme nights (or in some cases, theme weeks), with whole evenings devoted to a particular theme; the best being the week devoted to classic children’s TV entitled “Later with Bagpuss”.

BBC Choice as a channel had a very relaxed atmosphere about it, and that was reflected in the presentation as well; four different idents were employed which showed groups of three different objects but with the same name, e.g. three mice (one real, one clockwork, and one for a computer) along with a synthesised jingle – when watching these you couldn’t help but think that this channel was destined to be called ‘BBC-3’.

This rather blissful state of affairs was unlikely to last forever, and the omens looked bad as soon as BBC Choice regained a permanent on-screen.

Let me explain further – to begin with, all BBC Digital channels had these logos including BBC One and BBC Two, which generated an outcry because the versions of these channels didn’t have such apparel on display.

The complaints must have been pretty vocal because all of these logos, apart from the one on BBC News 24, were soon removed. This was despite the fact that digital viewers were still few and far between at the time, which may also mean that there must have been a relatively large number of complaints.

All was well until the BBC decided to give Choice an on-screen logo again; this time it was of a lower intensity but it was still noticeable, but it was just the first of a whole series of changes (what some might term as ‘improvements’) to the channel and its presentation.

What seemed to be happening was that the whole channel was being slowly repositioned to target the very specific youth market, which seems to suggest that a decision had been made to narrowcast the channel in order to try and boost its audience in multichannel homes.

While this may sound a reasonable decision to make, this approach has its downside in that, by restricting its focus, BBC Choice simultaneously becomes less distinctive from both its commercial brethren as well as only appearing to appeal to those who have already bought digital TV in one form or another.

Indeed until very recently BBC Choice had nothing that could be described as a selling point for digital television in general – it seems that BBC Choice has ended up just chasing ratings for existing digital viewers and brings nothing new to the party at all.

And even now, giving Choice the first say in showing such programmes as Shooting Stars seems a poor and pitiful attempt at copying what E4 has been doing for months before.

I know that EastEnders probably has a greater ‘youth’ following than (say) Coronation Street, but the repeats shown on BBC Choice seem slightly incongruous in comparison to the rest of the schedule. And so to the branding changes; BBC Choice has evolved from being a distinctive and characterful but relaxed channel, into one that employs the hard sell in order to try and capture and hold viewers that channel hop between Sky One/E4/MTV the like – the notoriously fickle youth market.

It’s like walking from a John Lewis department store straight into one of those small shops that are eternally having a ‘closing down sale’ complete with a loud tannoy informing customers of the ‘wonderful bargains to be had’.

Well, admittedly it’s not quite that bad, but compared with the terrestrial channels it does strike me as being incredibly desperate. The most annoying feature of current BBC Choice presentation, along with the on-screen logo clutter, just has to be those incredibly annoying spinning boxes that can appear without warning halfway through a programme along with a caption promoting EastEnders or the umpteenth repeat of Robot Wars Extreme (or similar).

It’s messy and trashy promotional material designed for morons, with the basic concept borrowed from the hyper-competitive US networks.

However there has been one ‘innovative’ idea which had been introduced with the last Choice revamp; that being of “60 seconds” which is a short news bulletin which is rather akin to a televisual version of the short news broadcasts on commercial radio.

But this idea is flawed as well. After watching one bulletin you are left with the impression that a major plane crash has been reduced in importance to that of the latest Britney Spears tour – and with all of the same emotional impact.

The information overload is so much that afterwards you’re hard pressed to recall more than one or two of the stories if you’re not giving it your full attention.

It would be far better if the bulletin was extended to two minutes. This could easily be achieved easily by axing a Robot Wars Extreme promo or two.

The extra minute would be invaluable for ‘pacing’ news stories far better without boring a younger audience who may not care about watching long news bulletins, and will help encourage this group of people to be drawn further in to issues that they feel disenfranchised from.

To summarise, BBC Choice has suffered at the hands of the promotional ‘spin-doctors’ who have turned it into “BBC Youth” with added hard-sell-by-numbers for the attention-challenged.

Still, the one good thing about BBC Choice is that in a few months it will soon be Choice no more. Let us hope that BBC Three is an improvement over this woefully unimaginative “branding-by-numbers” textbook presentation that has been served up as a stopgap.

A low budget doesn’t mean an excuse for generally poor programming – Liquid News being a shining exception – and shouldn’t mean “hard sell” presentation techniques.

I could also go on about BBC Four (a brilliant idea but may turn into an excuse to marginalise serious programming), CBeebies (a genuinely good idea) and CBBC (a nice idea on paper but deeply flawed on closer examination) as well, but I’ll save it for another time – after all that’s a whole new subject in itself.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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