Third time lucky 

1 January 2004

David Hastings reviews the first few months of BBC Three

If you were watching any BBC channel in the UK during the first few weeks of 2003 you would have almost certainly come across a promotional trailer for a ‘new’ BBC channel called BBC Three, which essentially promised to provide an extensive range of new programming primarily targeted at adults.

“Three is the magic number” went the song, but was Three really the magic number the BBC claimed it would be or has it just turned out to be essentially the channel it replaced (BBC Choice) in a new set of clothes?

A great deal of hype surrounded the launch of BBC Three. The channel’s debut was backed by an extensive advertising campaign both on existing BBC channels and in other media such as giant billboard posters in order to build awareness for the new service.

But previous BBC digital promotions included BBC Choice as one of the main reasons for opting for digital services (as part of the “more channel choice”), and as BBC Three was replacing an existing channel (BBC Choice) it was inviting comparison (rightly or wrongly) between the two services.

It is hard to imagine that the original incarnation of BBC Choice (when it first launched) was very different in character to the BBC Choice that officially finished broadcasting on Friday 7 February 2003 (just a rolling promotion for BBC Three was shown on the Saturday so that doesn’t really count).

But BBC Choice had evolved from being a mix of theme nights, additional sport, low budget programming and selected repeats into a channel that was specifically targeted at young adults. Stuart Murphy (ex-controller of UK Play) was responsible for this later shift in emphasis and it is arguable that he was brought in specifically to make these changes. He was also directly responsible for formulating the remit of BBC Three (as well as being its controller) so it was inevitable that critics would make a direct comparison of the two ventures.

After the BBC had launched its first digital channels back in 1998, the government later decided that the BBC had to submit future proposals for channels before they broadcasts could begin.

BBC Four was approved without any fuss, but much to the BBC’s surprise the first proposal for BBC Three (submitted in the autumn of 2000) that relied heavily on imports, reruns and series already established on other channels (LA Pool Party and Shooting Stars, to name but two) was rejected mainly on the basis that it wasn’t distinctive enough from the commercial competition.

This was an embarrassing setback which resulted in a further year’s delay as well as forcing BBC Four to launch in 2002 before BBC Three was ready. The second submission was similar but more demanding in terms of original European content (at least 90% of programmes) and as a result the channel was approved subject to later review (presumably to placate the commercial channels which still had concerns about BBC Three’s potential long term effect on their revenue) finally allowing the channel to launch on Sunday 9 February 2003.

BBC Three’s remit has specified that its programming is aimed at 25 to 34 year old, an age group which probably also happens to be the most popular for both commercial channels and many of their advertisers (hence the strict conditions).

The channel has to offer distinctive features such as a weekday news – “The News Show” – and news bulletins on the hour (60 Seconds) during peak time as part of this remit. Despite the increase in the budget available for programming production over what BBC Choice had, BBC Three’s channel’s budget is still an order of magnitude less than for BBC Two, which obviously restricts its ability to produce original programming (and the reason why the original submission also featured cheap re-runs and imports).

Given the lure of US imports with high production values offered by rival channels such as E4 and Sky One, BBC Three will obviously find it tough to establish itself as a key player with its intended 25-34 target audience (even in the longer term) and as good drama and comedy is difficult (and often expensive) to produce, cheaper forms of programming such as chat shows (such as Johnny Vaughan Tonight and This is Dom Joly), reality TV and showbiz ‘exclusives’ will have to form the staple of BBC Three viewing.

Intelligent scheduling is required in order to make the most of what’s on offer. The channel’s restricted programming hours assist with making the most of the relatively limited resources at its disposal but the required increase in original programming has demanded the production of more cheap programmes designed for the target audience.

For the first two weeks, EastEnders was premiered on BBC Three a day before it gets shown on BBC One. The presumed idea of this was to try to draw as many viewers over to BBC Three with the intention of ‘snaring’ as much of the channel’s regular target audience as a result.

This artificially boosted the channel’s viewing figures for this period but (so far) doesn’t appear to have had much of a long-term effect.

But what about the programming that is ‘exclusive’ to the channel? The success of Liquid News – probably the only “talked-about” programme that BBC Choice had prior to the channel’s demise – ensured its continuation on BBC Three and has now also been joined by regular spin-offs such as Liquid Profiles (celebrity interviews), Liquid Assets (celebrity financial facts and figures), Johnny Vaughan Tonight (celebrity chat show), This is Dom Joly (ditto), Celebdaq (celebrity ‘trading’ game), as well as ‘celeb specials’ such as Appleton on Appleton (ex-All Saints stars documentary) and Vinny (all about Vinny Jones).

Given the channel’s restricted operating hours it becomes evident that this is the predominant form of programming primarily because it is both cheap to make and ‘original’ in terms of content.

Along with the showbiz gloss there are other offerings that are aimed at its prospective audience, such as Re:covered (ex-BBC Choice series featuring various musicians/groups performing cover versions), Dreamspaces (aspirational architecture), and Burn It (gritty drama) plus comedy in the form of Little Britain (The Fast Show meets The League of Gentlemen crossed with a bit of Monty Python) and Monkey Dust (Chris Morris’ Jam-style contemporary satire in cartoon form).

All this may sound promising but bear in mind that these are essentially series of finite length and some may be less enduring than others, plus conversely there is another danger if a series has crossover potential (such as 3 Non Blondes) in that it will transfer to a channel with more viewers (BBC Two in this case).

If – or when – that happens, the programme will no longer be exclusive to the channel, though getting BBC Three programmes onto BBC Two along with cross-channel projects such as Fightbox may help to boost awareness of the channel in the long term, but success is not guaranteed by any means.

As you might expect of a channel aimed at an audience that is well served by the commercial sector, the overall presentation of BBC Three is competent but hardly risk-taking.

There are tried and tested elements employed to make the viewer feel ‘attached’ to the channel as a whole and the only “subversive” feature of note is the non-standard sloping “THREE” text employed in the logo box. Indeed as widely expected, BBC Three, like its predecessor, sports an on-screen logo or DOG (digitally originated graphic) during many programmes (it used to be seen on all programmes but now a similar rule to BBC Four has been adopted with the logo switched off during specific programmes) but it is noted that BBC Three would have been even more radical if the DOG had been ditched altogether.

The centrepiece of the new channel’s idents are what are known as the “blobs”, or animated blob-like creatures which were conceived by a junior animator working at Aardman Animations, the Bristol-based animation company responsible for various animated classics such as the various Wallace and Gromit series, the Chicken Run film, and most importantly (in this case) the “Creature Comforts” series of commercials for advertising electricity.

Apparently Stuart Murphy (the head of BBC Three) was touring Aardman Animations whilst looking for new programming ideas for BBC Three (as with the short “Angry Kid” animations) when he spotted the blob creatures, and he took the idea back to the Lambie-Nairn agency, responsible for the BBC Three identity package. They immediately thought that these characters were an ideal main feature for the channel’s idents.

The aforementioned “Creature Comforts” commercials become important at this point, since the voices for the blob characters in the BBC Three idents are provided using audio from the BBC archives which is much the same as using the voice recordings of ordinary people in a similar manner for the characters that featured in these earlier (and very popular) commercials.

It is arguable though that the BBC Three blobs are basically another form of the blob-like characters that are the main feature of both CBeebies and CBBC, as well as derivative of the animated ‘blob’ characters that took part in early promotions for E4 (Channel 4’s entertainment channel).

As these ‘claymation’ blobs have different characters, voices, and actions – they ‘speak’ for a short while before the BBC Three logo appears on the screen – BBC Three’s idents are essentially ‘character’ idents in the same fashion as BBC Two’s animated “2” idents.

The fact that the BBC Three logo doesn’t immediately appear in these idents is also very similar in fashion to the current Channel 4 idents. Also you cannot miss the giant “THREE” 3D solid logo that is often visible as the backdrop to these idents; this is in direct contrast to the BBC One dance idents, which have no logo whatsoever apart from the BBC One text in the box (and have often been roundly criticised for this fact).

What is also interesting is the way that each of the new idents is constructed. First, the blob characters say or do something, which is then followed by the BBC Three logo appearing in several different animated ways: such as appearing in a similar way to a drop-down garage door or appearing ‘photocopier’ style like the Channel 4 logo or bouncing up from the bottom of the screen. The announcer talking, usually with the “Magic Number” backing music, follows this in turn.

One possible criticism of the “blob concept” is that the humorous aspect of the idents may wear thin with repeated showings, but BBC Three’s restricted broadcasting hours help in this respect therefore BBC Three’s idents can get away with the sort of presentation style that would be difficult to implement on a channel that broadcasts more than 12 hours a day.

So much for the channel’s remit and presentation, but what exactly is BBC Three like, and does it do what it says on the tin?

First impressions garnered from the launch night were decidedly mixed, and it was a brave decision to go with Johnny Vaughan as both launch host and chat show host, though presumably he was picked as being the ‘big name’ host that was deemed to be the most popular with the intended (25-34) target audience based on his past track record (The Big Breakfast and Johnny Vaughan Tonight).

My opinion is that the launch night gave a rather misguided impression of what the channel was going to be like, but not necessarily like Channel 5’s launch night when many of its best ideas were premiered but never to be seen again.

Launch nights are admittedly meant to be special but this one could have done a better job of showing terrestrial viewers (just the first two hours were simulcast on BBC Two; it ought to have been at least three) what the real BBC Three was going to be like in terms of its programming.

So has BBC Three been a relative success or not? It is still too early to tell, and the general messages that are emerging from the channel are still decidedly mixed (especially when comparing BARB audience figures from BBC Choice’s heyday and post-Gulf War BBC Three with the latter showing a negligible improvement).

But to summarise, BBC Three seems to have gained an increase in audience share over its predecessor overall but is still currently a good deal behind similar commercial rivals such as E4 and ITV2 and even further behind “third tier” channels such as five and Sky One.

Granted, it is still early days yet. Some of BBC Three’s promising new series such as Little Britain have not been aired yet (apart from the pilot episode), and the BBC would point out that the channel has a more specific remit (hence a smaller potential audience) than the E4s of this world.

Therefore, relatively speaking it is “doing rather well”, but I feel that the marginal audience increase gained by BBC Three over BBC Choice is pretty poor given the money spent on additional promotion and programmes.

It is arguable that BBC Three’s narrow audience age range target is being used for two purposes; first to make the channel look as if it is serving a “worthy” purpose by giving 25-34 year olds a licence-fee funded alternative channel to watch during peak time so that this digital channel-savvy generation are theoretically more likely to support the concept of a licence fee.

Secondly, if BBC Three turns out to be a total flop ratings-wise, the BBC can point to the fact that only 25-34 year olds are being targeted so audience figure expectations should be accordingly low.

My opinion is that firstly a far greater percentage of 25-34 year olds will be watching programmes such as Top Gear and Never Mind The Buzzcocks on terrestrial BBC Two compared with the likes of Liquid Assets on BBC Three, hence BBC Two is hugely more important in justifying the licence fee in this respect, and secondly that BBC Three’s remit should have been radically different to begin with in order to avoid being “hobbled” in the fashion that it has been, especially allowing for the difficulty of competing with big budget US imports using BBC Three’s relatively tiny budget (the irony of course is that a main commercial competitor – E4 – is controlled by a public service broadcaster).

To conclude, in many ways BBC Three has tried to make the best of a bad situation; it wants to be a popular channel but it hasn’t got the big budget that a truly popular channel needs to have in order to draw a large number of viewers.

On top of this it effectively is being constrained in that it HAS to deliver a large quantity of original and home-grown programming in order to fulfil the proposal, and these constraints show themselves all too well in the nature of the programming that BBC Three features in order to meet constraints within the costs allowed.

It all seems glaringly obvious that the BBC has been driven into “a corner” with regards to the remit and content of BBC Three, and since the current BBC Three (and ex-BBC Choice) controller Stuart Murphy is credited with being the person primarily responsible for shaping the proposal behind the channel, then Stuart Murphy – along with the BBC’s digital channel strategy – is ultimately responsible for creating the paradox in the first place.

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