Just as we’d settled on the idea that the saddest occurrence in television this week would be the end of Outnumbered, Tony Hall, BBC Director-General, dropped a bombshell. Yes, in 2015, should current plans make it past the BBC Trust, BBC Three will be no more. Gone, just 12 short years on from its launch. It’s been a depressing week.
Strictly speaking, it’s not quite the end for the youthful channel. In his email to BBC staff, Hall has announced his intention to see BBC Three reinvented “as a channel online and on the iPlayer”, where it ‘will continue to produce amazing programmes – bringing new ideas, new stories and new talent to our screens’, albeit the extra small ones.
In the last ten years, BBC Three has brought us Little Britain, Gavin and Stacey, Being Human, Our War and, more recently, Uncle, among so many others that constitute a hugely successful track record. Then why end it, cutting it at its young roots so early on? The sad truth is that it’s a financial matter. Hall has been asked to cut £100 million and BBC Three costs £90 million – see the link? On top of this, Hall has said that the young BBC Three audiences ‘are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world’. The subtext here is clear: BBC Four is far more vulnerable, with lower ratings, but it possesses an audience who would be having none of it. Can you imagine the outrage that axing BBC Four would cause? On top of that, the fact remains that the BBC Three audience have already moved to the ‘online world’. 25 per cent of 16-24 year olds use catch-up services, while Netflix and Amazon are prime examples of the changing TV landscape. Online TV isn’t the future, it’s the present.
Really however, this move shouldn’t come as a shock to us. The BBC has been investigating, testing the waters and experimenting with the move for over a year now, most notably with the decision to premiere comedies on iPlayer. Look at Bad Education. The first series, broadcast on BBC Three in August 2012, averaged just shy of 1.2 million viewers. It’s a good figure, but it pales in comparison to the iPlayer figures for the series’ second run, which stand at just under 1.8 million. That’s not even including the BBC Three audience a week later. All the evidence would suggest that this move is not a foolish one.
However, this is not a universally popular choice. Media personalities from Matt Lucas to Greg James have taken to Twitter in protest. Jack Whitehall, star of the aforementioned Bad Education, tweeted:
“I really hope reports that the BBC may kill BBC3 are just rumours. There support of new comedy in particular is vital! #saveBBC3”
He’s got a point. So many strikingly good comedies have been born there and one has to wonder who else would have commissioned Him&Her or The Mighty Boosh? It’s not just comedy either; will Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents (if that’s your thing) fit into the BBC One, Two or Four schedules? It seems very unlikely. A vow has been made to move some programming to late-night BBC One and BBC Two, but that only partially disguises the main issue here. With BBC Three gone, is that really the end of traditional young adult broadcasting? There’s ITV2, true, but they’re hardly on the same level – the closest ITV have come is with their recent comedy Plebs. BBC Three have pioneered the market and turned representation into an art form.
It’s not the perfect channel, mind. Some of their programming raises eyebrows, and they broadcast an awful lot of repeats for a channel that airs exclusively in the evening and overnight. Another issue with an online BBC Three lies with the licence fee. You don’t need a licence to watch iPlayer programmes, and it’s therefore possible (and legal) to access the entirety of the BBC’s schedules on demand, without paying at all. Currently, you’ve got seven days, with new plans extending it to 30. It raises the question, how long can this loophole survive when the finances are so pushed that channels are being cut for the first time in the BBC’s history? Meanwhile, ITV is hatching new plans to launch two new channels this year: ITVBe and ITV Encore. It is quality over quantity though. In Hall’s words: “I don’t simply want to keep salami slicing the budgets in a way that means our frontline staff are always asked to keep doing more with less”. Cutting BBC Three as a broadcast channel will, according to the proposals, see £30 million added to the BBC One drama schedules, children’s programming extended by an hour, and the introduction of a BBC One +1 channel.
BBC Three isn’t done for yet, however. These are just proposals and have to get past the BBC Trust. Only four years ago, way back in 2010, plans to end BBC Radio 6 Music were blocked by the Trust, following a notably high publicity campaign: #SaveBBC6Music. The hashtags are already out here, #SaveBBC3, and petitions have been launched online. Consider this though: in an era of progression to online media, and an increasingly tech-savvy generation, is an online service really so bad?
Change is often hard to accept, but if you don’t move forward in a constantly shifting world, you stand still, and inevitably move backwards.