So what was special about Monday 15th February (apart from being the day after Valentines day)? Answer: it was the last day that BBC 3 was on air. From Tuesday 16th the channel was only available online. (Why this happened on a Tuesday instead of starting the week is not clear). On Monday James Corden struck an elegiac note as he introduced ‘for the last time ever on BBC TV -this is Gavin and Stacey’. But the voice over the end credits was more up-beat: ‘it’s all super exciting here for us on BBC3.’
So now Wikipedia has two entries on BBC 3: BBC3 (former) and BBC3 (internet television). The Radio Times has launched a ‘How to watch BBC3’ website and rejigged its pages, relegating BBC3 to a column headed ‘Today’s best of i-player, Netflix and beyond’. Not that BBC3’s target audience are likely to consult the Radio Times anyway. There are plenty of other ways of reaching ‘Netflix and beyond’.
By coincidence BBC 3 stopped broadcasting the day after it was announced that the Independent newspaper would also move online (its last paper publication was 26 March). We are well on our way to a totally online world. Portable screens. Everything on demand. Does it matter? What will we loose?
When the BBC 3 move was first announced in March 2014 a large number of people thought it did matter. A campaigner by the name of Jono Read launched a petition protesting about the closure. He gathered 300,000 signatures and organised rallies and demonstrations. For nearly two years, together with thousands of others, I received his regular e-mails, signed his petitions and admired his persistence. The BBC Trust launched two consultations and got 75,000 responses. As a result of all this activity I probably watched far more of BBC 3 than I would otherwise have done. But I appreciated it. Although I’m well outside its target age range, I liked its mix of programmes, and its fresh, coherent approach that was quite different from any other channel.
Looking back over the heated debates which followed that first announcement of the move, back in March 2014, there were two striking issues: the politics of the move and questions about the BBC’s commitment to a youth audience.
On the politics, Director General Tony Hall, was clear that the move was not driven by any utopian vision of a digital future, but by the brutal reality of the cuts to the Corporation’s income. The Government had frozen the licence fee and given the Corporation extra obligations. This meant that substantial cuts to expenditure were necessary and cutting a channel seemed an obvious option. In a Guardian media blog Steve Hewlett wondered if it was a political move on Hall’s part to draw attention to the scale of the government attack (9 March 2014). Hall also hinted that BBC4 was not safe either, and more recently there have been rumours that BBC News (previously News 24) may also go online. These questions still hang in the air as it’s unclear what licence fee settlement will be imposed when the BBC’s Charter is renewed. (It runs out at the end of this year, but there are rumours that it may be extended because of the volume of responses to the government’s Green Paper). Significantly two commercial media companies came forward with a bid to buy BBC3, promising keep it on air. Fortunately the BBC Trust rejected the offer, but no doubt a Government which values private enterprise above public service, saw this as a welcome portent of things to come.
The commitment to a youth audience is a different issue. BBC3 is targetted at young people and minorities who under-represented across the broadcast output. And, considering the comments that followed the decision to move it online, it did this remarkably well. However, at a Westminster Media Forum last November, which discussed ‘content innovation and strategic priorities’ for targetting ‘the millennials’ -ie those aged between16 and 35- the focus was on marketing, branding and online content. As each contributor introduced their show reel (they included All 4: Clear Channel, Viacom among others) we were presented with fast cutting, loud music, and an explosion of visual effects. The millennials, it seems are impatient, out for a laugh, and with a short attention span. I was puzzled by the stereotype, especially as, although everyone referred to ‘the millennials’ as ‘they’, plenty of those in the audience -and several of the speakers- can’t have been much over 35 themselves. But it reminded me of the days when Janet Street-Porter established a ‘youth’ genre, and her Network 7 and Def II went for the sparky and the outrageous, exploiting early computer graphics for all they were worth.
BBC 3’s target audience covers a narrower age span, 16-25, and, I would argue that the channel does/did not patronise or stereotype its viewers, but addressed their experience directly. As a channel, organising a range of genres, its strength was that it was respectful. Of course it included the practical jokes and the fireworks. Of course there was also fun, and provocative material with programmes like Don’t tell the Bride, and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents. But they were placed within a much broader range. I particularly have in mind documentary series which took young people’s lives and responsibilities seriously, including Tough Young Teachers and Our War about soldiers fighting in Afghanistan in 2010. This is possibly the most intimate programme it is possible to make about the experience of war. It was literally from the point of view of the soldiers themselves -the same age as the viewers- filmed by their helmet cameras as they exchanged fire with Taliban fighters and transmitted in 2012 while combat troops were still in Helmand. The series was accompanied by an extensive and valuable online presence, created in collaboration with BBC Learning and the Imperial War Museum which traced the history of the British presence in Afghanistan, included what producer Darren Lawford called ‘mood films’ from the soldiers themselves, as well as short films about the local people, made by an Afghan filmmaker who normally lives in Canada. Young Afghans were contacted via Facebook and some of their stories were illustrated by animations create by 6th Form students. The interaction between the broadcast documentary and the online material gave a deeper understanding and made the most of both media. Rather than ‘either or’, the best solution seems to ‘both and’.
Overall BBC3 gave a sense of a coherent channel, in touch with its target audience, moving beyond the high speed editing and fantasy violence which so many programme makers think characterise the age group. It also made refreshing viewing for the rest of us.
Now it is no longer a channel, but a brand. Its programmes can be tracked down on i-player, on the BBC3 website (bbc.co.uk/bbcthree), on YouTube, Facebook and other social networks, as well being re-broadcast on BBC1 and 2. And, indeed, there is a range of interesting material -some linked to BBC3 programmes, some not. As I write the Daily Drop features a ‘how we filmed it’ video behind the scenes of the powerful drama Murdered by My Father; links to articles about other BBC programmes, such as The A Word; links to information about the minimum wage; a trailer for the new Top Gear.
But the erasure of a coherent BBC3 is perfectly reflected in its new logo. Instead of the curly pink ‘three’ which often lived in a fantasy world, the channel is represented by three strokes: II!. Who would have imagined that the ludicrous brand consultants of W1A would have been taken at their word!
How to watch BBC3 online: http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2016-02-15/how-to-watch-bbc3-online
Pat Holland is a part-time lecturer at Bournemouth University. Her most recent book is Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s: The Challenge to Public Service with Sherryl Wilson and Hugh Chignell Palgrave Macmillan 3013.