Is the BBC turning BBC Three into an online channel?
Ivan Radford | On 05, Mar 2014
The BBC is expected to announce tomorrow its plans to turn BBC Three into an online channel.
The proposed move follows a speech from Director General Tony Hall at the Oxford Media Convention, in which he said the organisation needs to find “an extra £100m of savings” – but not by trimming bits from a range of services.
The conclusion from pundits was simple: BBC Three or BBC Four would eventually be up for the chop. Now, Broadcast (via the BBC) reports that BBC Three is the one being axed from the air, switching to an online-only format, which would form “a sizeable step” towards that £100m target.
Indeed, the channel’s service budget is £85 million for 2013/2014, although what goes where from that amount is unclear.
A step backward?
The response from the public has been loud, criticising the move as a sizeable step backward for the Beeb. While the channel’s line-up of Snog, Marry Avoid and My Man Boobs and Me might not be to many people’s tastes, In the Flesh, The Fades and Being Human have all been interesting dramas that have found their audiences, while shows from Mongrels going back as far as The Mighty Boosh, Little Britain, Gavin & Stacey have proven the channel’s indispensable value in developing and nurturing homegrown comedy. Then, of course, there’s the BAFTA-winning documentary Our War, which followed British soldiers in Afghanistan.
Jack Whitehall, writer and stuff of BBC Three’s Bad Education, told the Guardian: “I really hope reports that the BBC may kill BBC3 are just rumours. Their support of new comedy in particular is vital!”
Heydon Prowse, creator of satirical comedy The Revolution Will Be Televised, wrote in another powerful piece: “In Russia Pussy Riot have been imprisoned and whipped for filming dissent. Here in the UK we have a channel that is prepared to broadcast dissent to the nation, even when the broadcaster itself is the target.”
A step forward?
The anticipated announcement comes amid a growing focus at the Beeb on its online offerings.
Indeed, the BBC have been debuting shows on iPlayer ahead of their TV broadcasts for some time now, particularly those from BBC Three. With iPlayer’s audience steadily growing – the Christmas holiday period saw its busiest ever day, which was closely followed by its busiest ever month in January – it’s not hard to see why the BBC would consider an online-only channel a good fit for its more youth-targeted channel. An episode of Bad Education was the fourth most watched programme on the iPlayer across the whole of 2013, clocking up almost 3m views – while only 2 per cent of households in the UK are only watching iPlayer, there are evidently lots of people who use the service alongside other traditional channels.
An on-demand showcase for new talent and bold programming aimed at a younger, online-savvy audience, then, is an interesting prospect. Indeed, it would arrive as Hall is preparing to unveil a “new-look second generation iPlayer” next week – and as the BBC Trust approves plans for the introduction of a BBC Store, a pay-to-own platform to compliment iPlayer’s temporary watch-for-free service. It might – emphasis on the word “might” – turn out tomorrow to be part of an exciting, forward-looking digital agenda.
But how much of BBC Three’s £85 million would actually be saved by changing it to an Internet TV station? And where would those savings come from?
The fear is that BBC Three surfing the web instead of the Freeview waves would simply be a way to slash its funds for commissioning new content and encouraging new talent, while on the surface retaining the audience-friendly brand.
Cutting expenses by embracing new technology is no bad thing. Cutting funding for developing British talent, on the other hand, would be a tragedy. If the BBC can do the former without sacrificing BBC Three’s flare for finding new voices, an online channel might not be a step backward after all. Then again, how many times have freelance writers in the media heard the phrase “Sorry, we can’t afford to pay because it’s for online”?
With £100 million on the line and the public service broadcaster under growing pressure when it comes to the licence fee, the odds on them achieving that seem pretty slim. And that’s before you take into account My Man Boobs and Me.