Comedians and teenage telly advocates are up in arms about yesterday’s news that BBC Director-General, Lord Hall, has has decided to move BBC Three away from TV to an online-only version. I know that public service cuts are always met with opposition, and more often than not for good reason, but I don’t really see the problem with this latest change.
The BBC has to cut £100 million from its’ budget to remain financially sound it has been told. BBC Three’s budget for 2013-14 was a total of £85 million, so in reducing the costs of broadcasting by putting it online a serious dent will be made in the overall deficit – taking it down to £25 million. This is a basic business decision that will help the organisation in the long run.
BBC Three is seen as a channel where new comedy can develop and programs can be shown that target a younger audience, generally teenagers and young adults. The majority of that demographic will be very comfortable accessing programs online through BBC’s iPlayer, perhaps more so than through set-top boxes and a TV. Taking advantage of the savings involved in doing this is a great business decision and there’s no reason why it should be a bad quality decision.
It’s not as though the BBC is killing off the channel or putting it in the shadows. BBC Three only broadcasts from 7pm each night until some point in the small hours of the morning (typically 4am). If you count 1pm as a reasonable bedtime for the teenage demographic the channel targets, then there are only 6 hours a day of BBC Three programs that people can watch on TV anyway. It’s much more convenient to put shows only on iPlayer where people can watch these shows at their leisure, something that I’m sure many are already doing. Some existing BBC Three shows will continue to be broadcast on other BBC channels. These changes could result in more money being spent on commissioning new shows in a future, more financially prosperous time for the BBC.
A large amount of the uproar is about losing a channel that supports new comedies. This argument may appear strong, but isn’t if you look at what the channel does. Last night, according to TV Guide UK: 1 hour of the schedule was taken by Total Wipeout – a repeat of a BBC One game show; 2 hours were taken up by Festivals, Sex and Suspicious Parents – a one-hour episode repeated on the same night; 1 hour was taken up by Pramface – a half-hour episode repeated on the same night and another hour was devoted to bought-in American comedies Family Guy and American Dad. The new and original content that critics of today’s decision are citing isn’t there to be found in spades.
It speaks volumes about the channel that I can almost guarantee that the most-watched and best received of any of these programmes shown last night would have been the re-runs of Family Guy – the only reason I, and many people I know, ever watch BBC Three. A Facebook page set up to campaign against the change to BBC Three is swarmed with comments arguing to save the channel based on Family Guy alone. Without BBC Three, you can find the show online and be able to pick the episode you want to watch at a time that might suit you better. Given the show’s popularity it may even be pushed onto BBC Two at a similar time to its’ frequent airings on BBC Three. Saving a channel for one show that it doesn’t even produce would be ludicrous.
BBC Three’s programmes aren’t nearly as popular as some are claiming them to be. On BARB (Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board)’s latest viewing figures for digital channels between February 17th to the 23rd the only programme to appear from BBC Three is the film Little Fockers. For the week before, the film Enemy of the State appears along with five individual showings of Family Guy. Nobody is tuning in for the other programmes. Lord Hall announced that shutting of BBC Three will allow for a BBC One +1 channel to be launched, a service that is long overdue and bound to be popular, as well as an extension of CBBC’s hours past the early close of 7pm. The BBC is allowing for an overall better public service by moving BBC Three’s content.
Although not a wholly accurate source, looking at TV Guide UK’s ratings for the shows on the channel show that in general they are held in extremely low regard in a quality sense as well. Shows such as Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents and Don’t Tell the Bride are hardly adding much benefit to our society are they? The comedies that are defined as for teenagers are puerile and idiotic at times. For example, Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show revolved around a character acting as ignorantly as possible. Our state broadcaster should not be stooping to such levels. A quick glance at some of the comments made on the Save BBC3 Facebook page will show that the channel isn’t fulfilling its’ duty to educate as well as entertain. With lacklustre viewing figures and low critical acclaim, how can people suggest that this meagre level of support for the channel shows it is viable?
It is the view of many of BBC Three’s supporters that BBC Four or other BBC channels should be exiled instead. There are many reasons though why it would be harmful to do this rather than change BBC Three. For starters, the budget of BBC Four is only £49 million, 57% of the level of BBC Three’s, and any drastic cuts there would still need to be matched with significant cuts elsewhere in the service. Also, the demographic of BBC Four does not lend itself to being shifted online, with the older audience not as likely to tune in online as younger people are, meaning a greater loss in overall viewership for the BBC.
Comedies aimed at young people do deserve a space in the BBC’s line-up just as culture and arts programmes do – but the BBC’s job is to deliver them in the best and most efficient way. The Director-general and his colleagues have decided that they think the best way of delivering BBC Three’s programmes is via the internet.
The fact is, as well, that with the level of funding that BBC Four is receiving that it is doing far better than BBC Three on TV. BARB’s figures for average daily reach for February 17th to 23rd show that BBC Three pulls in an average of 385,600 viewers a day compared to BBC Four’s 246,000 – equivalent to 63% of BBC Three’s viewership. So BBC Four are gaining 6% more viewers than BBC Three for the money they are receiving.
Although BBC Three’s programmes aren’t appearing on the top 30 digital programmes list, BBC Four drama Salamander has been near the top of the pile in the last few weeks – even beating high-profile football matches shown on Sky Sports. There is little basis to point the guillotine at any other channel than BBC Three.
The decision may well be reversed, it is worth noting, if today’s reaction shows the beginning of a groundswell of support for the channel. The decision to move BBC Three online needs to be confirmed by the BBC Trust, who advise the corporation based on the interests of license fee payers. Ironically though, the main voices of support for the channel are coming over the internet – crying out against the channel they care so much about being on the same medium they are using to protest.
BBC Three isn’t dying, although some of its’ shows will hopefully be discarded, but moving to the care home of the internet, where far better care will be taken of the channel’s truly promising shows. A segments of one of the channel’s most popular shows, Russell Howard’s Good News, sums it up best: It’s Not All Doom and Gloom.