BBC Three to survive – sort of

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

Apologies for anyone who want a theatre blog to stick to theatre, but I’m going to carry on digressing to non-theatre arts a little longer for an update over the fate of BBC Three. As you all should know by now, there’s been a controversial proposal, backed by BBC management, to drop BBC Three from broadcast and just keep it as an online brand. There’s been a campaign to stop this, which I’ve broadly supported. You can read my reasons there, but the short version is that BBC Three, along with BBC Four, are great assets to the BBC because they can take risks. They might bomb half the time, but when they work out – and they often do – they can go on to great things on BBC One and BBC Two. Anyway, today there is news of the final proposal that BBC management is submitting to the BBC Trust. (Unfortunately, I can’t find the actual proposal, only the BBC news story about it, so I can’t check the fine print. This is the best I can do.)

It’s not an outright victory for #savebbc3 just yet. The bad news is that it’s still planned to pull it from channel 7 in Freeview. But the proposal is not nearly as bad as I originally feared it would be. BBC executives will probably swiftly deny there was ever any plan to completely close the channel – after all, their original proposal had a title promising an exciting new future as an online brand. But TV executives are notorious for bullshitting and they spin this sort of positive light on anything. A programme that is haemorrhaging viewers and being shunted away to off-peak spot where it can die on its arse would probably be spun as “an exciting opportunity to connect with a new audience” or something. Cut the crap, what’s in the details? Well, I’ve had a look, and it’s not too bad. Here’s the important points I picked up, as I understand them:

      1. BBC Three will remain as a live channel and not just a “brand”. The original proposal implied that BBC Three would only really exist as a label for programmes put straight on iPlayer. Instead, it will continue to behave as a broadcast channel, such that if you’re watching live online (this way) it will look exactly the same. In fact, its broadcast time is switching from 9 hours or so after 7 p.m. to a full 24-hour service. Make no mistake – this is vital concession. Had BBC Three been reduced to a label on catchup TV, it would almost certainly have been followed by a whittling down of the remaining budget, and eventually removing the BBC Three label from the remaining iPlayer programme. It will still have a broadcast schedule to fill, and schedules need programmes.
      2. The proposal now only removes BBC Three from digital terrestrial. No mention of dropping the channel from satellite or cable. And quite right too. There’s only a squeeze for airspace on Freeview (a squeeze of sorts – I’ll get back to this later), so it would have been daft to use that reason to scrap it from Sky, Freesat or Virgin. Assuming it is indeed the case that BBC Three will continue to broadcast this way, that means that a lot of people will notice no difference at all in how they watch the channel. The only people who potentially stand to lose out are Freeview people who either don’t like watching programs on a computer, or live in an area with poor broadband. That’s still a substantial chunk of the audience that might be lost, but not the whole lot.
      3. There seems to be a serious proposal to carry on doing original programming. As I’ve said before, the existence of BBC Three as a broadcast channel is only part of the story. The other half is what actually appears on the channel. It would be a pointless victory if BBC Three stayed on Freeview only to show nothing but cheap formulaic dross. Well, it looks like the BBC have got the message about original programming and are heavily basing their strategy on this. Too early to say whether they actually mean this, or whether this would be watered down later, but this initial signs look good. However, this does lead to one consequence:
      4. Light entertainment is going. Cited as examples of programs that won’t have a future are Snog, Marry, Avoid and Don’t Tell the Bride. To be honest, I can live without them. That not to say we shouldn’t have programme like this – if you want formulaic telly that doesn’t tax the brain, that’s fine – just that BBC Three isn’t the best place for this. There are plenty of programmes like this on ITV2 and E4, and BBC Three doesn’t need to produce more of the same. If it’s budget’s being squeezed, they’re best off using it where it’s most useful, which is cutting-edge risk-taking television.
      5. BBC Three’s scope is expanding beyond broadcast television. 80% of BBC Three’s budget will carry on being spent on programme like what they’re doing now. The other 20% is going on to “non-traditional content”. What that will be is anybody’s guess. They might have ideas of what to do now, but it’s impossible to predict what will and won’t work. We’ll be waiting for some time before we find out what become of this.

So, not as bad as it might have been, but not out of the woods yet. The next stage is the consultation by the BBC Trust, which will start in January. At present, it’s hard to tell what the BBC Trustees will make of it. But it’s a public consultation so that’s when our views will really matter. When it comes along, I will have two questions in particular. This will be my first one:

      • Why do we actually need to pull BBC Three from Freeview’s airwaves? Sure, I can see the case for looking to more of an online focus, but I don’t see why you need to pull BBC Three from Freeview to achieve this, or achieve any of the other things being proposed. And I’m confused over their promises of what to do with the freed-up airspace. BBC One+1 plus CBBC broadcast time being extended to 9 p.m. instead of 7 – hang on. Between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. you’re removing one channel but adding two. How does that work? Transmitting TV channels is only a small part of the BBC’s budget now, so I don’t see how this saves any money. And – at the risk of repeating myself from last time – even if the BBC must cut back on digital bandwidth, why does it have to be BBC Three? Why not BBC Parliament? Throughout the onDigital and ITVdigital days, BBC Parliament was broadcast on a reduced size screen, or just audio, whilst BBC Three was broadcast in full. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid Parliamentarian, but I’m much less bothered about watching House of Commons debates on my computer than a full TV programme. (Or, better still, there’s loads of crappy channels on Freeview I wouldn’t miss one jot.)

But that, I think, is the less important one. There is a far more important question that today’s proposal hasn’t answered:

      • Are you still planning to divert money from BBC Three to BBC One? I maintain that this was the biggest flaw in the original proposal, seemingly added at the last moment as a very misguided sweetener. BBC One’s budget is vast compared to Three’s. Any money BBC one picks up from Three or Four will be negligibly small, but severely cut what the smaller channel can do. And worse, BBC One and Two need Three and Four to take risks for them. In the long run, the BBC risks making its flagship channel stale if that’s where it’s funding is centralised.

It’s certainly no time to ease up the pressure. But it looks like the worst-case scenario, that was a real possibility nine months ago, has been averted. BBC Three looks set to have secured some sort of future. But can we secure BBC Three a better future than what’s on the table? There’s a long way to go with this campaign, but we can be proud of what we’ve done so far.

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