Future-proofing the BBC 

22 June 2008 tbs.pm/2187

Various BBC channel logos

With the advent of PVRs and on-demand viewing, padding schedules with repeats and “previewing” programmes on popular channels before showing them for real on less widely-viewed ones is no longer an option, argues Carl Ellis.

Over the last seventy-odd years BBC television has expanded from a single channel to the eight channel line-up that has been in place ever since BBC Three finally launched in February 2003.

Of course, it’s not really an eight channel line-up as BBC Three and BBC Four share their airtime with the CBBC and CBeebies channels, but in the light of a lower than anticipated licence fee settlement, is even six-channels stretching the BBC’s resources too far?

The BBC Trust believes that in the future the Corporation should “do less”, with “more repeats” to fill the schedules, but I believe this policy is deeply flawed.

In particular, the more repeats strategy seems to be ignoring the way that increasingly numbers of viewers are watching television, a trend that will only increase.

Until the advent of the video recorder, viewers usually had only one opportunity to watch a programme. If they missed it, then tough – the programme was gone, unless it was repeated at a later date. Video recorders meant that viewers could watch programmes at their own convenience, but their usefulness is constrained by their inability to playback a recording until it’s completed or to record one programme while watching an earlier recording.

But the era of the video recorder is coming to an end, as more and more viewers use Personal Video Recorders such as TiVo, Sky+ or Virgin Media’s V+ box to timeshift programmes – and they have no such limitations.

Criticising the number of repeats in the Christmas schedules, Lib Dem culture spokesman Don Foster highlighted the growing use of PVRs and other on-demand services, saying, “We can access programmes in a variety of ways to watch time and again at a time of our own choosing, so putting them in the schedules is not a good excuse.” . Anyone who uses a PVR will tell you the same thing – the way in which they watch television has been transformed.

So while the BBC blithely defended its use of repeats, Foster’s criticism is fully justified, with more and more viewers using PVRs or catch-up services such as the BBC iPlayer or Virgin Media’s on-demand facility, simply filling the schedules with more and more repeats, particularly same-day or same-week ones, will become increasingly unnecessary.

This isn’t to say that repeats should simply be scrapped, but that the BBC needs to make far better use of them than it currently does. Getting to 11pm and then having BBC Three and BBC Four loop back to the start of their schedule isn’t really good enough and seems designed to make things easier for the BBC rather than better for viewers.

For example, with more and more viewers using PVRs, there’s no point in simply showing something two or three hours later since viewers will simply be able to record the first broadcast and watch it when they want. Viewers would at least be better served if repeats were a day or two later, enabling them to watch programmes that simply passed them by first time around.

But the next few years will see the BBC facing other challenges than just its use of repeats.

It sounds obvious, but after 2012 every television in the UK will be capable of receiving the BBC’s full channel line-up. Therefore, there will be no point in simulcasting News 24 on BBC One or BBC Two since viewers will just be able to watch the news channel in the first place. Similarly, with two dedicated children’s channels, there will be no need to run any children’s programmes on either BBC One or BBC Two.

Previewing BBC One or BBC Two programmes on BBC Three or BBC Four will also be pointless. At present, premiering a series such as Heroes on BBC Three is an easy way of boosting the channel’s ratings as well as promoting digital television in general, without cannibalising BBC Two’s audience too much. But after the analogue switch-off, what’s the point in simply splitting a programme’s audience across two channels in this way?

Propping up BBC Three and BBC Four with repeats and previews of BBC One and BBC Two programmes also has the knock-on effect of hindering the channels’ attempts to establish their own identity. This probably affects BBC Three most. Not only does it have more obvious rivals than BBC Four but it’s also tied into repeating EastEnders at 10pm four nights of the week, 52 weeks of the year.

No doubt the BBC would point out that these repeats are among BBC Three’s most popular programmes, but as this is no longer a good enough reason for them to continue. Anyone with a video recorder who doesn’t watch the BBC One broadcast live can record it, and as we’ve seen, PVRs make timeshifting even easier.

The BBC’s constrained finances means that I don’t believe that it can sustain its existing channel line-up without padding out its schedules with repeats, but the changing way in which viewers are watching television means that more repeats are simply unnecessary.

I therefore propose a change. The BBC’s channel line-up should be rationalised and alongside there should be a service offering repeats, add-on programmes such as Doctor Who Confidential and extended and alternative coverage of events such as Glastonbury and Wimbledon.

Of the current channels, I would retain – albeit with some minor changes – BBC One, BBC News 24, BBC Parliament and CBeebies. The other channels – BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four and CBeebies – would be combined into two mixed genre channels.

BBC Two and BBC Three already share a number of programmes. As we’ve already seen, previewing series on BBC Three will become increasingly pointless, and the BBCi replacement would allow much better use to be made of repeats than simply dumping them into the BBC Three and BBC Four schedules.

Therefore, my solution would be to shift those programmes which are currently shared would instead become exclusive to BBC Three. Retaining existing timeslots would mean that viewing patterns aren’t disrupted, with viewers simply watching BBC Three rather than BBC Two.

At a stroke, BBC Three would inherit a number of successful series, mostly scheduled between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, around which to build its schedule. In particular, it would be able to make the most of its post-watershed timeslots rather than viewers simply tuning in at 10pm for EastEnders and switching over as soon as the credits start.

This would obviously leave holes in the BBC Two schedule, which I would fill by effectively folding BBC Four into the channel’s schedule. The channel would continue to be somewhat eclectic, with everything from ballet to darts on offer, but would have more of a focus than it currently does.

The other major change I would make would be to scrap the CBBC channel and to replace this with blocks of CBBC across the BBC’s three mixed-genre channels. There would still be programmes aimed at the CBBC audience during the channel’s present hours of 6am to 7pm, but this would give the BBC more flexibility in scheduling non-children’s programmes during the day.

This set-up would leave the BBC with three mixed genre channels – BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three – plus BBC News 24 and BBC Parliament plus CBeebies for younger viewers during the day, supported by up to three additional services which would be called upon as and when required.

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