For the first time in its history, the BBC is to close a television channel. In March 2014, the corporation announced its plans to move BBC Three from traditional broadcasting to an online only channel. This was approved by the BBC Trust in November 2015, with the channel to switchover this month.
This monumental move, described by Director of Television, Danny Cohen as “the biggest strategic decision the BBC has made in over a decade” – comes as a result of increased pressures on the licence fee. “Something has to give,” the corporation’s Director General, Tony Hall, insisted in an email to BBC staff.
But why BBC Three? It is a decision due in no small part to the channel’s remit and intended audience. BBC Three is currently mandated with reaching an audience of 16-34 year olds, and “taking creative risks and experimenting with new talent and new ideas, in particular in the area of UK comedy,” (BBC Trust, 2013) - and, it has arguably been very successful in doing so.
Comedy programmes such as ‘Little Britain’ and ‘Gavin & Stacey’ debuted on the channel, along with award-winning drama ‘The Fades’ and hard-hitting documentaries by talented young journalists such as Stacey Dooley.
BBC Three currently commissions more comedy than the rest of the British television industry combined, and the planned move online has been met with concern from comedy producers worried about reduced budgets and smaller audiences. The BBC insists that, given the growth in online television watching, the newly exclusively online BBC Three will instead serve as a content innovator.
It could be argued that a youth-focussed channel makes sense for online delivery, given assumptions about how young people consume media. The BBC’s own research however, shows little evidence to suggest that BBC Three is the obvious choice over other BBC channels to be relocated online.
The Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), which gathers ratings for all UK broadcasters, states “teens are consuming pretty much as much TV now as ever”, with online consumption a complement to, rather than replacement for, traditional broadcasting.
The decision seemingly reflects the television community’s continued confusion about how best to serve their younger audiences. In the 1950s and 1960s, television responded to teenage culture with music series like ‘Six-Five Special’ and ‘Oh Boy!’ In the 1980s and 1990s, the BBC’s ‘Def II’ strand encompassed a wide range of youth-orientated programming.
Television appears to repeatedly see young viewers as ones who must be specially catered to as their interests and tastes lie outside the mainstream. The fact that the industry has been trying to solve this problem for over six decades suggests specific solutions remain elusive.
To some, the BBC Three’s move online represents another strategy in the quest to please the younger viewer. But for many, it has been seen as a form of marginalisation. Responding to the announcement, comedy producer Ash Atalla, suggested that the BBC has “given up” on young audiences, who are now being “shoved online”.
Opinions are divided and only time will tell. For me, television remains a significant cultural space, connected to ideas of citizenship and nationhood and by shoving younger people’s concerns online, the BBC is removing a wide range of voices from a public space. At a time when concerns about young people’s engagement with politics, democracy and society recur, I believe British television is about to send a signal that these voices don’t matter.
For more information visit: http://savebbc3.com/
Brett Mills is a contributing author in Media, Margins and Popular Culture, with his chapter ‘Shoved Online’: BBC Three, British Television and the Marginalisation of Young Adult Audiences http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/Media-Margins-and-Popular-Culture/?sf1=barcode&st1=9781137512802
For more from the author visit: www.makemelaugh.org.uk
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Words: Brett Mills
Image source: BBC Pictures