TV You will have heard about the changes to BBC Three and TV producer Ash Atalla's diatribe on Newsnight last night and this seems like something you're supposed to have an opinion about. Here is my opinion about it.
Now it's important to say that I'm not pleased with that opinion. It was my first response on hearing that BBC Three as a television station was due to close, and it really shouldn't be. BBC Three has a long history stretching back through into the BBC Choice era when the BBC was still experimenting with multi-channel television.
But I was also expecting it and have been for some time. I think we all have.
It also isn't a very nuanced argument, so here is some nuance.
This entire problem goes back to the license fee settlement in 2010 which froze the budget the BBC had to work with for six years. So after opening up BBC's Three and Four and host of other digital services when they could afford to and as part of an agreement with the previous government to produce some extra stations to help persuade viewers to switch over to digital early, the new government put them in a position where they really couldn't.
The freeze of the license fee wasn't for any particular reason. The government treated it, and publicised it as part of the cuts, but as a separate "tax" to government spending, there's no particular reason why it needed to be frozen for quite so long other than so that commercial operators, like, I don't know, Sky, with all of their cash, could move into areas the BBC used to do because they could afford it, and pretend to be some cultural white knight (cf, Sky Arts) and give them some new element of respectability.
But in what was the financial equivalent of Game of Thrones's red wedding, the BBC was also forced to take on the burden of financing the World Service in house leading to even less money for services.
Which means they were pretty much shafted and like some great metaphoric expression of how many household have been treated by the present government are being forced to give up some luxuries of which, unfortunately BBC Three is an example.
When it was first suggested and as it was announced, many people on Twitter and in the media began to talk about all the successes BBC Three has had across the years and there have been plenty from Being Human to Lip Service to most recently In The Flesh and the broadcast of Orphan Black.
What hasn't been noticed is that a lot of the successes from Gavin & Stacy to Torchwood were produced under the earlier remit to attract 18-34 year olds. In more recent years, due to pressures from the BBC Trust and the government's culture department that demographic has lost a decade at the top end which has arguably limited the types of series entering production. Everyone loved Pulling. Pulling was one of the shows cancelled because of this remit change. I believe it's also one of the reasons Gavin & Stacy was shifted to the "main" channels.
The other problem is most of those shows have gone mostly because as with the rest of the BBC, the channel's budget has already dwindled. Zai Bennett the channel controller has had less money to play about with. Shows like Being Human went not because they weren't popular but simply because, we're told, they couldn't afford to make them.
Doctor Who Confidential, went too for much the same reason apparently.
Which means that over time, the amount of new commissions on the channel overall has dwindled too. A glance through the recent schedules and especially next week, shows that there's only about seven and a half hours of brand new programming, mostly in the 9-10:30pm slot on weekdays, the rest filled with another chance to see some of those shows, reruns of Doctor Who and Eastenders, nightly episodes of Family Guy and American Dad and the film Blades of Steel twice in prime time.
Within what is new is what looks like an interesting documentary following the lives of young EDL members, some sitcoms and a competition series about trainee hairdressers, admittedly just the sort of shows BBC Three is and has been good at. No drama notice, but see above.
The problem is there's not enough of it because there can't be because the channel can't afford it.
When Ash Atalla says things like "A BBC3 audience who have been cut adrift today has nowhere else to go on BBC television. They have been marginalised." and "BBC3 is the main plank with which the BBC connects on television with young audiences and they have cut their link to the future" he's talking about it as though this isn't something which has already happened.
Frankly, the way the channel's had to deal with commissioning and budgetary body blows during its slender history, this begins to look like a mercy killing.
Of course, the Doctor Who parallels are obvious. That too saw its budgets and amounts of new content dwindle despite producing wonderful material until it was put out of its misery. That too had a small passionate audience but an overall lack of interest from the viewing public. Loads of people then thought "fine, whatever" because the BBC had lost faith in it, in just the same way they've lost faith in BBC Three.
Which is partly why I'm so disappointed that my reaction was "Fine, whatever". I fell into the trap.
But there's still a solid basis for shifting BBC Three online and some of the quotes from Ash Atalla are quite useful because they give something to argue against. Here are some counter arguments:
He says: "It feels like a 60-year-old man in a golf jumper has walked into a really good nightclub and turned the music off so he can hear more Mozart next door."
Which is a swipe at Radio 3. Simon Hayes Budgen goes over the figures on that. He works it out as oranges and lemons, but it's still an unfair comparison because for its 54.3m budget, Radio 3 broadcasts mainly new content for twenty-four hours a day. BBC Three's current budget of £121.7m currently leads to those seven and a half hours a week.
"BBC3 is the main plank with which the BBC connects on television with young audiences and they have cut their link to the future," Atalla told BBC2's Newsnight on Wednesday.
Actually, you could argue that Radio 1 and Radio 1Xtra (as well as 6Music) are the main plank with which the BBC connects with young audiences and create the link for the future. It also assumes these same young people don't watch the Saturday night offerings, or anything on the main channels in the early evening or for that matter on BBC Four which they undoubtedly do. Based on his argument, once the kids are too old for CBBC there's a gaping chasm which will lead them to stop watching the BBC. I disagree.
"It is inexplicable that they have chosen to axe BBC3 as opposed to BBC4. They need to serve everyone the BBC. I understand they need to make cuts.
Except BBC4 is not only a ratings winner, but the programmes on it can be sold worldwide to a massive audience in a way that most BBC Three shows can't necessarily, at least directly. Formats perhaps. Plus, again, you're assuming that BBC4 has an audience which is different to BBC3. There's always crossover both ways. One of the knock on effects, one of the things which gave me pause was where the next series of Orphan Black would go. Fortunately for me, this whole thing, if it does happen, won't happen until 2015.
"However a BBC4 audience can migrate to BBC2. The BBC1 audience serves the whole family. A BBC3 audience who have been cut adrift today has nowhere else to go on BBC television. They have been marginalised."
But, now, a BBC4 audience can't migrate to BBC2. BBC2 in its present state would never have broadcast the recent histories of architecture including the Jonathan Meades piece, or the Anthony Graham Dixon shows about art. Or the Scandinavian dramas. In much the same way that most people assume what the BBC3 audience looks like, including him and me, he's making assumptions about the BBC Four audience that they're the same as the BBC Two audience or that the programmes the to two channels produce are the same. While BBC Four repeats some BBC Two material, the audiences don't quite match and the native programmes certainly don't. BBC Four tends to assume the viewer has some background knowledge of a topic. BBC Two assumes you don't and starts at the beginning. Plus he contradicts himself. He says BBC1 serves the whole family then says the BBC3 audience which presumably includes people in that family "have been cut adrift today and has nowhere else to go on BBC television" except for BBC1. With the rest of the family. I understand what he means. What he means is that there won't be programming with a public service remit which talks to young people or deals with their issues. I'd argue that some parts of BBC3's programming doesn't do that right now. See above.
"Today the BBC has got whiter, older and more middle class because it's the BBC3 audience that is the most diverse of all channels."
If you say so. It's not perfect, but BBC television as a whole has become more diverse than ever. There are problems (Eastenders), but in terms of faces on screen, it's never been better. Indeed amongst the chatter on PM's package last night I think, I heard someone say that "the Pythons would be on BBC Three today". No they wouldn't. The BBC at this moment would never commission a sketch comedy from six blokes from Oxbridge, not in that format.
Atalla said it was a myth that younger viewers – the channel is aimed at 16 to 34-year-olds – spent most of their time watching TV online.
[facetious] Have you been online? [/facetious]
"It sends out a really bad message that the youth market should just be shoved online," he said. "We are all onilne now. The statistics don't even bear it out – a BBC3 audience watches linear TV, it's a slightly middle aged older man perception that kids are simply online. Actually they like to watch TV in the way we all do."
Which is increasingly online. The +7 numbers across the board for the iPlayer are increasing year on year to the extent the overnight ratings have become a pointless exercise in trying to gauge the popularity of some programmes in certain demographics. Doctor Who is a massive ratings success on the iPlayer. So is Sherlock. Plus the reason something like Netflix can exist is because enough households have the web.
He added: "What a strange thing to give up on young people, to marginalise young people. Of all the channels, of all the services, what a weird message to give to licence fee payers of tomorrow that there is no television channel aimed at you."
Yet there is, still, and it's online instead and "tomorrow", I imagine within about ten years, most television will be delivered via the internet in the same way as BBC Three will be in 2015. Far from being ghettoised on there, it's actually at the forefront of broadcasting changes and this whole thing will be looked back on as an interesting milestone in a much longer "journey".
He doesn't mention comedy, but that's also worth addressing. There's a lot of talk, mainly from the people who make it, about how without BBC Three, there won't be any risky comedy on television. My argument is that the risky comedy will continue, because it'll have to and it'll have an even wider audience on BBC's One and Two. To an extent, something like Pramface or Bluestone 42 could and should be on BBC Two. But they ended up on BBC Three simply because BBC Two probably looked at them and thought, "They're a bit BBC Three". Without BBC Three, I wouldn't have been surprised if they'd done the commission because they have an audience to serve.
If only the people complaining about the cancellation now had been manning the barricades in the past few years during the process of zombification of the channel which has led to where it is now.
This whole process is also another artifact of the same attitude the present government has engaged in of divide and conquer. We really shouldn't be having discussions and deciding between BBC3 or BBC4 or Radio 3 because they're all offering different things for different audiences and it is true that the audience with the quietest voice will always lose.
Danny Cohen is now saying he can't guarantee the safety of BBC4 either, by the way. Imagine the shit that'll hit the fan if that ever really does become a thing. Not that it probably will because of Tony Hall's plans to increase arts coverage across the board and create connections with real world organisations. BBC4 is bound to be one of the anchors for that.
There's already talk of the 6Music effect. Might happen. More people might start watching BBC Three's programmes and underscoring its importance. Like 6Music it might reinvigorate the channel. Might even get a budget increase. But 6Music had a definite community which it could specifically point to and who were passionate supporters.
BBC Three's community is less easy to see, and to pin down, and to speak, partly because as a channel, because it's almost entirely prerecorded there's no one on there banging on about its importance, selling the thing to the audience. They could have the announcers reading out emails and tweets between programmes I suppose, but even the announcers are on tape, I think.
Plus it's not going, it's being absorbed by the iPlayer and as Cohen says, long-form programmes will be shown on terrestrial television somewhere. He says: "We do not want our content for young audiences to be available only to those with a broadband connection – and we don’t want anyone to miss out on the great new programmes we will be producing." Might sell some more PVRs then. Orphan Black will still be around if it survives until then. This also clarifies and deals with some of Ash Atalla's issues.
Not to mention that this situation isn't entirely dissimilar to the one which existed before switch over when BBC Three and Four programmes were repeated late night on BBCs One and Two. BBC Two's repeats even had a DOG which read "BBC Four on BBC Two". We might see the return of that.
Oh and a lot of people will still be watching these BBC Three programmes on television because of connected televisions. That's how I watched most of the last series of Orphan Black. Via the iPlayer.
Another interesting artifact seems to be that Barb have agreed to include iPlayer viewers in the timeshift for the first time which has interesting implications across the board if it includes everything. Doctor Who's viewing figures will be properly expressed for the first time in ages for example.
Finally, here's the thing and it's something Atalla didn't address with all of his understandable passion and not really mentioned by anyone else. Before BBC Three existed, back in 2003, what did this audience watch? What did they watch when they still had analogue television before the switchover? This is when I was that audience. We just watched something else. Is that so bad?