Lack of choice 

5 March 2014

What started as a rumour yesterday on various websites and social media networks rapidly grew in prominence when various BBC Three-related celebrities such as Russell Kane and Jack Whitehall claimed that there was a plan to close down the BBC Three TV channel, resulting in a great deal of speculation with #SaveBBC3 becoming a popular trending topic on Twitter.

Giving this rumour extra credibility was last month’s speech made by the BBC’s Director-General stating that the corporation had to close down at least one major service in order to save money, though speculation had earlier concentrated on a potential closure of BBC Four due to its often highbrow content and the fact that there was no specific demographic in mind for its target audience unlike BBC Three, enabling a relatively smooth transition of programming from BBC Four to a channel like BBC Two.

However, the news that BBC Three was actually the target for closure was confirmed by BBC News today, with BBC Director-General Tony Hall scheduled to announce the BBC Three closure plan tomorrow (Thursday). The plan involves moving the channel’s relevant programming online in order to save money whilst somehow preserving the essence of its content, which of course carries significant risks as pointed out by Benji Wilson on the Telegraph website, and don’t expect anything like the level of new programme commissioning that has existed for the channel in the past. (Of course some of BBC Three’s programming may also be shown/repeated on other BBC television channels as well.)

Bear in mind that presenting a closure argument as “We’ll get the chop” will almost always provoke a negative reaction from viewers regardless of the actual outcome, plus of course stars like Jack Whitehall may inadvertently or otherwise have a vested interest in preserving the status quo. Despite some heated opposition to the plan, anyone thinking that a BBC Radio 6 Music-style campaign is capable of saving the TV channel is likely to have an unpleasant surprise this time round, since on this occasion the numbers are distinctly stacked against any opposition to the decision.

Ever since BBC Three launched ten years ago it has always been a mix of the accessible and risky, and to its credit has more or less stuck to its remit despite the occasional wobble or two. Not just for the headline-hitters such as Being Human, Gavin and Stacey, Little Britain and Torchwood, etc., either; Our War was an award-winning documentary about Afghanistan, and low-key documentaries such as OCD Camp made important points in an accessible fashion without being patronising.

The early years of BBC Three were certainly more adventurous, even though the channel was swamped on occasion by repeats of early breakout hits Little Britain and Two Pints Of Lager. Doctor Who Confidential became a regular and fairly popular fixture along with repeats of Doctor Who itself and Top Gear, along with the late night EastEnders repeat which was/is the only thing to survive from the original BBC Choice schedule (BBC Three’s predecessor). Also don’t underestimate the public service utility of having short news bulletins directed towards its target audience.

Despite doing various worthwhile things over the years, BBC Three has always had its share of critics, and not just because of a high volume of repeats and/or a failure to appreciate its actual merits or the occasional commissioning of clunkers. The use of controversial-sounding programme titles in order to grab the attention of potential viewers browsing electronic programme guides has also generated controversy, even if it was blatantly obvious on some occasions that the critics hadn’t actually seen the programme(s) in question regardless of their merit. Commercially-funded channels such as E4 may do similar things but the BBC is supposed to be somehow ‘better’ than them, even if in reality it actually is better than them.

Recent budget cuts haven’t been kind to BBC Three either, with too many repeats of the infamous but not-totally-awful Snog, Marry, Avoid and Don’t Tell The Bride dominating a schedule that could really have benefited from a fresh injection of cash. All these repeats might give an impression of a channel resting on its laurels even when the opposite may actually still be true, all things considered.

BBC Three has been useful as an outlet for new ideas, notably risky commissions from established acts or the promotion of fresh talent (The Mighty Boosh, Mongrels, Nighty Night, Pramface, Pulling, The Smoking Room, etc., etc.), and even if something didn’t appeal to everyone they still gave actors and writers creative exposure within the industry and a relative freedom to experiment. In short, BBC Three had taken over some of what Channel 4 used to do a great deal during the first 20 years of its existence, namely take genuine risks and profit from any successes, arguably something that no other adult-oriented BBC channel has properly done in recent times. What will happen next relating to the genuine promotion of new talent remains to be seen.

BBC Three has also done its bit in ensuring the BBC as a whole complied with self-imposed targets in relation to the percentage of programme commissions from independent production companies versus those produced in-house, so the effect of axing the TV channel on this commissioning balance may be fairly small but stil significant overall.

But why close BBC Three and not BBC Four, especially as the former has an advantage of targeting what was perceived to be a valuable young adult demographic in terms of being catered for by the BBC and has a specific purpose, therefore helping to further justify the value of the TV licence for that age group? Getting young adults to support the TV licence was supposedly important for the future survival of the BBC in its current form, although the outcome of multichannel viewing in the UK has been less severe for licence fee support than originally anticipated, largely due to the continuing public recognition and support of quality output from the BBC itself, with BBC Three playing a relatively small but significant role in all of this.

The choice of BBC Three for closure is simply down to the channel budgets. For the 2013/14 financial year, BBC Three cost £85m which is nearly all of the £100m of savings needed for the second phase of “Delivering Quality First” cutbacks started under the Mark Thompson regime (the very existence of Phase 2 essentially being almost forgotten about since the original cutbacks were announced), and that compares to £49m for BBC Four, £79m for CBBC, £29m for CBeebies, £53m for the News Channel and a paltry £2m for BBC Parliament.

This time round, Tony Hall has wisely ruled out further “salami-slicing” of various BBC service budgets because everything apart from certain management structures (an entirely separate issue for further attention) have already been pared back to the bare minimum, meaning that the further lowering of budgets would have a visibly detrimental effect across the board. We’ve already seen at least one potential effect of making BBC News run on a proverbial knife-edge, namely previous Newsnight-Savile scandals partly attributed to financial cutbacks ensuring that staff couldn’t spend more time carrying out essential research into news stories.

So if further budget trimming risks the wholesale collapse of reputation in more than one sector (drama, news, sport, etc.), then Tony Hall has no choice but to wield a major service closure axe instead to save that £100m. BBC Radio 6 Music was previously saved by a concerted campaign but the amount of money involved that time round was more like £10m as opposed to £100m, therefore minor savings made elsewhere were at that point enough to preserve 6 Music along with any related marketing push allied to helping to justify a digital radio switchover.

Given no choice but to close one or more major services – and we’ll ignore BBC One and BBC Two’s budgets, assuming that they’re fully juatified and ringfenced – what exactly should be axed to save £100m? Closing BBC Four and moving much of its content to BBC Two could save £49m but we’re only halfway there by doing such a thing and something else that’s significant would still have to give. (Further trimming management would save relatively little by comparison.)

Closing most of the BBC’s local radio stations would be hugely controversial even if some of them essentially carry identikit content due to years of neglect, and closing other radio stations would either make too little savings or be out of the question in the case of Radios 1 to 4 in particular. So closing BBC Four (possible) and a bunch of radio stations (controversial), or BBC Four and another television service could save £100m, but both approaches would have a very significant impact.

What else could be axed to save money? The News Channel appears to be a fairly expensive luxury (£53m) for something that has a small audience outside of major breaking news stories (major stories often being simulcast on BBC One or Two as well), and if similar savings are being discussed again in the future then closing a combination of BBC Four and the News Channel (the latter in favour of streaming news online) will undoubtedly be a favoured option, especially as broadband availability becomes almost universal during the next few years.

Then there are the CBBC (£79m) and CBeebies (£29m) channels based in Salford, which also makes them politicially-contentious as well as important. Childrens’ channels are perceived to have a very strong public service interest, being free of the advertising that plagues their commercial competitors, and recent advertising restrictions relating to what can and can’t be sold to children makes the existence of a separate commercial-free childrens’ service even more valuable.

However there could still be further savings to be had from CBBC and CBeebies; for example, what’s the true point of broadcasting CBBC during the day during term-time? Children not at school due to illness are usually supposed to be too ill to concentrate on learning, and children being educated at home would/should have access to specific educational materials available online and on formats like DVD.

That discussion’s for the future, however, because as it stands a decision has now been made to move BBC Three online that looks almost certain to be approved barring small-print technicalities, meaning £100m is to be saved with a much cheaper, scaled-down BBC Three online plus as yet unspecified further savings, most likely relating to another management cull as previously promised. And yes, it means on paper that BBC Three still exists in some form, but let’s just say that it will be nowhere near the same as it was in order to make any savings worthwhile.

If anyone is upset by the loss of BBC Three, please bear in mind that it isn’t actually the BBC’s fault as a whole that it has come to this. These cutbacks are an ongoing consequence of a previously-reduced TV licence fee settlement, so any blame for BBC Three’s closure must ultimately be directed towards government as well as partial attribution to Mark Thompson who was the BBC Director-General at the time of the settlement. Tony Hall has had to make an extremely difficult decision under pressing circumstances.

“Delivering Quality First” has finally claimed its first major scalp, and something tells me this won’t be the last unless/until the TV licence fee is successfully renegotiated with an increase that at least keeps pace with inflation. At least the BBC is now openly admitting that cutting the licence fee in real terms has a greater (and visible) detrimental effect than may have appeared to have been the case previously; something that Mark Thompson ought to have publicly made more clear to begin with.

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1 response to this article

Magnus Ratings 13 March 2014 at 9:04 pm

BBC Three and BBC Three HD (transmissions) have to go in order to make room for Hall’s pet project of BBC One +1 and BBC One HD +1 from 20:00h onwards after an extra hour of CBBC.

As the BBC is primarily nowadays concerned with ratings (in order to justify its current funding model), the replacement of Three service with the One +1 service has been estimated to considerably boost the number of viewers to BBC tv even after the loss of BBC Three viewers.

If this does work out as anticipated, it is probable, that since “BBC Four is not guaranteed beyond 2016”, that BBC Four and BBC Four HD will be replaced with BBC Two +1 and BBC Two HD +1 in a similar manner.

However the net gain in viewers will be nowhere near as great and the loss of prestige will be immense, so this transition will not be as easy to achieve.

Shewing a one hour time delayed version of BBC One and BBC Two is so much cheaper than having [occasional] original programming on BBC Three and BBC Four.

Also Hall also needs savings so that he can turn BBC Radio 1 fully into a BBC Video 1 service because being able to watch a DJ spin a record is so much more public service broadcasting worthy than just hearing the audio.

One should never forget that just as was the case with Birt, Hall was appointed under a Conservative government.

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