Three’s just a crowd 

9 March 2008

BBC Three logo

The 12th of February marked an important event for BBC Three as it unveiled both a newish schedule and a whole new look for the channel. The blob idents became history with a ‘pink world’ concept taking its place. Presumably the intention was to create a grand linking theme between the TV channel and the new accompanying website.

However what probably looked good on paper turned out to be a disjointed mess when on-air. I would go as far to say that overall it was the worst presentation I have ever seen on any BBC television channel – a hotch-potch of ideas inspired by media buzzwords with linked together by a vague, assumed premise.

Three different types of station ident were used – one featured someone in the style of the old Channel 5 “celeb talking on a couch” set pieces and something that looked like a “progress indicator” at the bottom of the screen, which eventually turned out to be to be nothing of the sort in what was just one of several annoying inconsistencies.

There was the much-heralded “user-generated content” element: a viewer introducing a programme shown just before The Real Hustle; “new” as the on-screen graphic continued to remind us throughout the programme. The clip looked amateurish and pointless since it just served to sink the channel to the same level as YouTube.

The thinking is depressingly transparent. Nowadays broadcasters obsess endlessly over somehow ‘connecting’ with the younger generation. These viewers indeed spend a lot of time looking at YouTube, Bebo, MySpace but making your channel look like YouTube and feel like MySpace is somewhat missing the point; these viewers will go to YouTube if they want YouTube-style video. This is just dumbing down by another route.

When viewers switch on a BBC channel they expect to see content that’s relevant to them no matter how it’s presented and young people go to the cinema expecting to watch films with Hollywood production values as opposed to watching YouTube clips. Therefore a BBC TV channel is expected to have BBC production values by default.

More conventional-looking animated idents were sometimes used as well, including a BBC Three logo ‘sting’ that sometimes appeared after a programme. To complicate things further sometimes a programme would start immediately after a clip of presumably live in-vision continuity with no following ident.

There were minor but sloppy inconsistencies in the use of captions, which may be easily correctable and are almost irrelevant in the real world but they betray a lack of behind-the-scenes planning. It was almost as if half of the BBC Three production staff had been sacked and replaced by amateurs.

Enough of the disappointing presentation then, what about the new schedule? I didn’t sit down and watch every programme in-depth but the new comic strip-inspired drama ‘Phoo Action’ has potential though like so many BBC Three drama productions is ultimately let down by a lack of budget.

Earlier in the evening there was ‘Find me the Face’, which sounded and looked like something that Sky Three might put on. This involved having two talent scouts on the lookout for future fashion models. BBC Three was obviously playing it safe at this point but to attempt to call this new and exciting could be against the Trade Descriptions Act.

Then there’s Lily Allen and Friends, featuring pop starlet Lily (daughter of Keith) Allen in her own chat show, in which allegedly over a third of the audience walked out before the end. It was naturally heavily edited to try and make it look respectable, but apart from two tolerable interviews it has a long way to go before becoming truly accomplished. If the best you can call a show is ‘tolerable’ then you are in trouble for a channel relaunch night.

Independent producer Princess Productions is a master at producing ‘cheap and cheerful’ chat shows. It superficially should have at least worked on one level but one pilot show doesn’t seem to have been enough to have given legs to this concept.

Then there’s the new pink ‘three’ logo. Pink isn’t the best of colours for displaying on television, pink graphics can look fuzzy at times and the new on-screen logo used during programmes is more solid than the previous watermark logo style which can end up being potentially more distracting for many people.

Much like BBC Three’s new presentation Lily Allen’s show was a melting pot of lots of existing ideas that ended up becoming a rather bland stew. The slow clapping of some of the audience behind the front two rows said it all, unfortunately.

So what’s next for BBC Three? It’s no secret that the channel wishes to extend its broadcasting hours and the long-term intention is to reposition the existing CBBC Channel to cater for much younger children, so it seems obvious that BBC Three will at some point plan to start its daily broadcasting earlier at the expense of CBBC airtime.

The fact that BBC Three has reintroduced the once-unfashionable concept of in-vision continuity (IVC) – someone appearing in person to tell viewers what’s coming up next – isn’t just a sign of trying something different, it also indicates the possible future direction for BBC Three; the fact that CBBC also uses IVC as well is a big clue here.

Since many children of ten years or over go to bed well after 9pm these days even during the week, having them watch a BBC Three that starts earlier, at 6pm perhaps, is preferable to the BBC than having those same children watch a CBBC Channel that closes down at seven, since those children could then switch over to a rival commercial channel.

Having in-vision continuity could be a step towards making BBC Three into a “grown-up kids’ channel” which stands a better chance of capturing young adults during the time when the likes of The Simpsons / Home and Away / the local news that’s stereotypically for older people is on elsewhere.

The verdict? BBC staff haven’t exactly had an easy year with continuous talk of personnel and budget cuts generally lowering morale but this has rarely been readily apparent on-screen – until last night – that’s the best excuse I can think of for something that seems to lack cohesion at several levels.

Given time BBC Three’s new presentation may begin to make sense, so all hope isn’t lost. It does illustrate the danger of getting focus groups to prejudge your concepts and the end result may end up being the ultimate price to pay for swallowing too much marketing hype.

You can view the new idents in The Ident Gallery (Transdiffusion assumes no responsibility for the content of external sites).

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