Scrapping BBC Three is a mistake

Logos of BBC One, BBC Two and BBC Four, with a gap between Two and Four. Text: TV makes no sense without us.

COMMENT: The move to divert funding to BBC One shows how much BBC Three’s risk-taking is undervalued. I’d rather do the salami slicing Tony Hall warns us against.

Unless you’ve been on holiday in Bratislakislavistan for the last two weeks, it won’t have escaped your attention that there’s a proposal to close BBC as a broadcast channel. And, just like there was for proposals to close 6 Music and Asian Network, there is be a big outcry over this, with over 200,000 signatures to an online petition already. Normally I don’t like leaping on bandwagons – I prefer to save my opinion pieces on this blog for more contentious arguments. Besides, this is television, not theatre, and as I don’t watch that much television I ought to not have an opinion. But even though I watch very little of BBC Three (or any other channel), I have been supportive of the idea, because this channel is a kind of Edinburgh Fringe of television.

I will explain what I mean by the “Edinburgh Fringe of television” shortly. However, before berating the BBC management for something they haven’t said, I should first of all go over what they are proposing and why. The root problem is that the BBC has to cut its spending. It’s no use denying this fact because that’s the reality of the situation. Other public bodies have put up with far worse cuts, including the arts, so you cannot reasonably expect the BBC to be exempt. That is not under dispute. The problem arises in how Tony Hall proposes to solve it. He says that you cannot continue “salami slicing the channels”. Rather than carry on cutting budgets over all channels, he wants to restructure BBC television in a way that removes BBC Three from the airwaves completely.

Now, it’s fair to say at this point that BBC Three is not going completely. It will remain as a “channel” on iPlayer, and the argument is that as young people are so used to viewing programmes online, it won’t make much of a difference. (They also propose to air some longer programmes on BBC One and Two after 10.30.) I must admit there is a sort-of point here. In a world where video can easily be streamed on demand, the concept of transmitting TV programmes to a schedule is a somewhat archaic concept; it’s quite surprising how doggedly ratings wars over prime-time slots has stuck. If airspace really was an issue, I would have some sympathy with the idea that a BBC channel could have a viable future online.

Trouble is, I don’t believe airspace is an issue. Tony Hall argues that the airspace freed up will enable the (admittedly long overdue) BBC One +1 to take to the airwaves. But hang on a second – BBC One +1 was announced months ago, and no-one was suggesting scrapping another channel to make way for it back then. Why is it suddenly an issue now? And if airspace is in short supply, why BBC Three? Why not BBC Parliament? That’s more than adequately catered for online by BBC’s Democracy Live. Or, better still, can’t we just lose one of the crappy shopping channels? Also, airspace is only really an issue on Digital Terrestrial. Why does it have to go from Satellite and Cable too?

But that’s not the biggest bone of contention. No, where I’ve really got a problem is the sweetener: that £30m of BBC Three’s money will be diverted to BBC One to make more original programmes. Now, don’t get me wrong: BBC One is my favourite TV channel by a long way. It is my view that BBC One is probably the best television channel in the world. But moving other channels’ budgets into BBC One’s is completely the wrong priority for the BBC. I don’t think this will even benefit BBC One in the long run. And that brings me on to my Edinburgh Fringe analogy.

Now, likening BBC Three to the Edinburgh Fringe should be taken with a pinch of salt. Unlike the Fringe, BBC Three is not, has not, and never will be a place open to anyone who wants to broadcast something. No TV channel can work like that. But it is a channel that can take risks the way Edinburgh Fringe shows do. And, yes, like the Edinburgh Fringe, a lot of risky ideas that might have seemed like a good idea on paper turn out to be absolute dross. That is the price you pay for artistic freedom. But, in both cases, it is more than outweighed by the value of the successes. If BBC Three’s record of risk-taking was a string of duds, then I’d agree that it was an experiment that’s not worth continuing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. They have a lot of hits to their name and – crucially – these are mostly shows that took risks that would not conceivably have been taken in a channel jostling for the #1 rank in the ratings.

BBC One, for all its qualities, cannot do the job BBC Three does. I have to say, I don’t see what difference £30m is going to make to a channel with an annual budget in excess of £1bn, but that’s not the point. The point is that on BBC One, the pressure is on to justify its status as the broadcaster’s flagship channel. Sure, there are plenty of good programmes on BBC One, but few of them have any decent claim to be innovative. Most of the hits are variations on tried and tested formulas, such as period dramas, detective series, or legal dramas. True, they do produce the occasional blockbuster for something risky – the modern-day transplant of Sherlock is a good example. But that was only possible because the head writer had already proved himself with Doctor Who. That is very much the exception rather than the rule.

For decades, BBC One has relied on its sister channels to take the risks. It used to be BBC Two, now it’s mostly being done by BBC Three and BBC Four. A new idea that is tried out on Three of Four might bomb, but that’s no big deal. What’s far more important is the ideas that do well, because if they work well on a niche channel, that’s a promising sign that it’ll work on a mainstream channel too. There are, again, close parallels to mainstream theatre’s relationship to fringe theatre – fringe theatre takes the risks, and if they succeed, mainstream theatre follows. Sadly, it looks like BBC management are now severely undervaluing this, and are close to cutting off – or at least severely cutting back – one of their main sources of inspiration.

But there is one difficult question that supporters of BBC Three have been slow to answer: if not BBC Three, what shall be cut instead? It’s the same problem throughout public spending – it’s easy to say what couldn’t be cut, but it’s harder to say where the axe should fall instead. The easy cuts have already been made, and the remaining choices are getting increasingly painful. Tony Hall warned that the alternative was continued “salami slicing” of channels. If anyone’s got a better idea, I’d like to hear it, but failing that: do the salami slicing. We can live with that.

Bottom line is that BBC television’s programming budget is being cut no matter what, and if the channels stay as they are, there will be fewer original programme to fill the airwaves over four channels. And that means all channels will have to fill in the gaps by resorting to more repeats. More repeats, I hear? Good! Let’s stop apologising for them and have more open, unashamed repeats on BBC One. BBC One is in the fortunate position that it has a vast back catalogue of successful shows to its name. Even if they have to re-run the same TV series for the third time in as many years – why not? There are plenty of programmes good enough to warrant this.

But the BBC only has a successful back catalogue to fall back on because of its long history of taking risks, learning from the failures, and capitalising on its successes. This proposal to start centralising programming funding into BBC One is a big step in the wrong direction. If fringe theatre was to cease running tomorrow, it wouldn’t be long before the effects would be felt in mainstream theatre. BBC One should fear the same if they allow BBC Three to go this way.

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