The announcement by the Director-General of the BBC that BBC3 will be cut from our screens met with instant Twitter campaign, celebrity backlash and a petition with over 50,000 signatures. Lord Hall confirmed this week that Snog, Marry, Avoid, Ja’mie: Private School Girl and other programmes adored by students everywhere will soon only be available on iPlayer as part of the BBC’s cost-cutting drive.
On one hand, the move makes perfect sense. Constantly scrutinised as the renewal of the BBC Charter in 2016 looms closer, Lord Hall is under pressure to save an extra £100 million. With BBC3’s annual budget stretching to £85 million and commanding only 1.4% of total monthly TV audiences, it’s easy to see how the channel seemed ripe for the chop.
The decision also reflects the ever-changing nature of TV. The BBC is often accused for being out of touch, as if the license fee detaches it from the popular awareness brought about by reliance on advertising. However, in this case, they are demonstrating that they have their fingers on the pulse of new trends in broadcasting.
TV is moving away from a fixed schedule and towards on-demand viewing – when was the last time you postponed pre-drinks to catch a programme in the JCR? Radio 1 has just announced it will launch a channel on iPlayer in an attempt to entice the Internet generation with exclusive performances and interviews. Transferring BBC3’s combination of comedy, documentaries and reality to online is just another step to capture the youth audience.
However, as Lord Hall recognised in a speech in Oxford last week, 90% of all television is still watched live. Removing BBC3 from the air will play straight into the hands of other broadcasters. Last month ITV launched ITVBe, a new channel catering to the predominately young female audience clamouring for TOWIE and other entertainment series. The youth market that BBC3 serves is highly lucrative – Joey Essex has his fragrance, for goodness sake – and closing one avenue of attracting young people as other channels expand their live viewing is a risky strategy.
I’m not saying that the BBC should just copy its rivals. What makes the Corporation so special is that it is different from commercial stations, and the commitment to documentaries that strike a chord with its 16-34 year old audience means that BBC3 was never the direct competitor of ITV2 or E4.
However, the BBC does need to think of the wider consequences, not least the fact that, in the wise words of Whitney Huston, ‘children are the future’. To create a devoted viewing base in an age where brand loyalty matters and consumers are fickle, the BBC needs to appeal to and represent the youth audience. After drawing in children through CBeebies and CBBC, moving teenage viewers to Internet could exclude a chunk of young people raised on BBC content.
The power of TV as a cultural force comes from the fact that, unlike a high-speed broadband connection, it is present in all our homes. TV provokes conversations and can create stereotypes because it is so available. Rather than scrolling through the swathes of catch-up options and making a choice, we only have to press a button to see people just like us instantly represented on the screen. Moving a chunk of BBC programming to the Internet will dent this power and potentially marginalise many groups of viewers.
Of course, it is not true that Lord Hall’s announcement will eradicate the BBC youth’s audience. As a generation, we are adaptable and will sniff out good telly wherever it is available. However, it is clear that TV has moved on far more quickly than we could ever appreciate; power is rapidly slipping from the channel controllers and into the hands of the viewers.