BBC Three: On(the)line

Three might be the magic number, but it’s never been a lucky one for the BBC. ITV 1, colloquially known by many as ‘three’ as in ‘put it on three’ was the BBC’s first rival and remains its largest. It usually occupies the third channel slot. Radio 3 has the highest cost per user hour of any BBC radio station, but one of the lowest audiences. And now we’re met with the news that BBC Three is to become an online channel.

As when anything changes, there have been a chorus of complaints and concerns. Russell Kane’s cry of “Why should it be this channel?” is of no surprise seeing as he gets a lot of work from BBC Three, but one of the more valid concerns is the loss of BBC Three as “a massive creative nursery slope for talent and for shows”. However there’s a chance – and chance is italicised because it very much depends on how the BBC handles the whole thing – that it could fulfil this nurturing role as well or better online. Of course, it’d need a good platform designing: the current iPlayer is functional and does its job well but somehow manages to be both clunky and pragmatic at the same time.

EDIT: Literally today the BBC announced an iPlayer overhaul that is indeed sleeker. Well played auntie. Still, to survive as a channel BBC Three will need a dedicated site, and one based on the new iPlayer frame looks like it could work.

Online is the home of the short-format and freed from 30, 45, 60 minute etc. ‘programming blocks’  a trippy ten-minute child-unfriendly cartoon, single three to five minute sketches or experimental drama or comedy presented in 10-20 minute minisodes would be cheaper to produce than a half-hour programme. In fact, the BBC literally just started doing this with the iPlayer original drama shorts (Flea, My Jihad and Tag). YouTube and Vimeo can fulfill all these functions of course; but what the BBC has is its traditional role of providing support to emerging creators, access to existing talent, funding, equipment, and promotion.

BBC Three with its younger, tech-savvy audience is also more likely to survive a move online. Millenials watch the least TV and the most online video. True, 75% of 16-24 year olds’ TV consumption is still linear but this has been waning for years and looks to continue doing so. This 25/75 split could even be because a significant amount of millenials barely watch any TV, and when they do it’s with others.

BBC Three could also potentially use its move online to reach a more diverse audience. BBC Three is a ‘youth’ channel, but has and unvaried repertoire: loud, unsophisticated comedies (which isn’t to say some of them aren’t good or well-written), vapid entertainment shows and documentaries so formulaic someone made an algorithm to mock them: – in short, the channel has a defined idea of what young people are and what they want when, like all ‘groups’ the truth is going to be much more varied.

Smaller, lower budget productions also means less risk per production, so BBC Three could target smaller niches within young people that its current broad approach to youth overlooks; whether this be LGBT, gamers, or even something like young people who are intelligent but find BBC4 too stuffy.

True, the move online itself will cost money and there are cuts to the budget in general. There is certainly fat that could be trimmed: They must be running out of places for sex and suspicious parent by now and for every Bad Education there is a Badults (which now has a second series, diminishing my faith in the BBC’s standards). Surely no-one would miss the “Robert Webb smarmily nitpicks about film mistakes until you want to punch him” programmes that are essentially three hours of filler? This is however still an area where things could easily go wrong.

Of course, I’m probably being naively idealistic and this is a way for the old guard to kill the channel quietly and move some of the money towards inoffensive BBC One tat. Because what’s going to re-invigorate the Netfilx-threatened medium that is broadcast television is more call the damn midwife…