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The linear demise of BBC Three: no logic, no sense

02 Dec 2015  |  Raymond Snoddy 
The linear demise of BBC Three: no logic, no sense

The outcome of moving BBC Three online could point a finger to the future - or serve as a stark warning, writes Raymond Snoddy.

Rona Fairhead, chairman of the BBC Trust, has admitted that the decision to close BBC Three as a broadcast channel was a finely balanced one.

She told the autumn conference of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, however, that the deciding factor, apart from cost, was the way viewing patterns were changing among the target 16 to 34 year-old audience.

The closure will come effectively at the end of January, although for a further month there will be something called "a promotional transitional channel" until the transmitters are finally switched off.

It will be a BBC landmark of sorts. Crazy government-imposed late night services have died naturally in the past and satellite channels can come and go but this is the first time in the Corporation's history that a national free-to-air channel has been closed against the wishes of many of its viewers.

The decision was taken despite more than 300,000 people signing an online petition to save the channel, opponents who included senior figures from the creative and production communities.

In its death sentence announcement the Trust acknowledged the strong public opposition to the closure but then said something strange and interesting. It said the proposal had "intuitive force".

Not logic, not sense, not facts; but intuitive force.

It's a dangerous thing taking irreversible decisions through the power of intuitive force.

This is presumably an assumption based on the concept that the young are watching less television on the traditional screen and deserting to the internet - the shape of the future.

This is true of course. Up to a point.

By chance last week Thinkbox, the body that promotes and carries out research on commercial television, published some new work.

The findings are not earth-shatteringly new or surprising but it is necessary to combat on a daily basis the wilder futuristic fantasies on the state of television.

Between 1995 and 2014 television revenues have continued to grow despite the rise of online and television's market share has remained constant across 20 years with newspapers the big losers.
It's when you get down to the detail that it gets interesting and relevant to the fate and likely prospects for an online, diminished BBC Three.

Thinkbox has a lovely slide charting total UK video consumption across all platforms and devices.

For all individuals 81 per cent of viewing is to live TV and the catch-up and VOD offerings of the broadcasters. By way of comparison YouTube accounts for 3.5 per cent, other online video 4.5 per cent, with porn on 4.6 per cent and DVDs 3.8 per cent.

With the 16-24s - the people who are supposed not to watch television at all - the television share is still 65 per cent.

The Thinkbox research does not specifically address the older BBC Three demographic but intuitively the 25-34 year-old cohort is surely likely to watch more television than their younger brethren.

The only good thing to come out of the affair is that we will be able to watch a living experiment in action."

Let's suck our thumb and say intuitively that 70 per cent would probably be about right. That's one hell of an potential audience share to be turning your back on.

The Trust believes that on average 11.2 million people watch BBC Three every week. Again one hell of a number of people to reject.

The BBC goes on to say that around 80 per cent of the nearly 1 million people who use no other BBC service could switch off including the young, black audiences and women in low-income households.

Fairhead insisted that the Trust has not exactly been a pushover on the BBC management's plans for BBC.

As part of the package long-form material, as traditional length programmes are apparently now called, should be shown on BBC One and BBC Two and not in the middle of the night either. Additional programmes aimed at the BBC Three demographic should also be commissioned for broadcast.

The BBC Trust will have a look in 18 months to see whether the conditions are being met - if the Trust exists by then.

Is the closure of BBC Three wise? Almost certainly not.

Is it a necessity forced by cost-cutting? Probably not.

A partial aim was to save £30 million to reinvest in BBC One and BBC Two. Jono Read from the SaveBBC3 campaign pointed out that money has probably already been found from the loss of The Voice to ITV but nobody has joined up the dots.

As Damian Kavanagh, controller of BBC Three naturally puts it, BBC Three is not being closed. It is being reinvented with a mixture of long and short-form content that can obviously be watched at any time of the day or night, and presumably anywhere.

"We will no longer be limited to traditional TV. These are exciting times for BBC Three," insisted Kavanagh.

The only good thing to come out of the affair is that we will be able to watch a living experiment in action.

The online BBC Three will start with massive advantages. It has had a broadcast presence for 12 years to establish itself in the minds of its audience and there will be cross promotion beyond the transition in February.

In fact it is difficult to imagine an online channel with a better tailwind.

From 1 February we can watch for the first time the live experiment to see what happens when a broadcast channel goes online only.

The results could point a finger to the future - or serve as a stark warning. The numbers will decide.

Naturally Rona Fairhead had a lot to say about regulation on Tuesday and wants a unitary board to run the BBC and take responsibility for all creative and financial decisions and the development and delivery of strategy.

But you then need a regulator that should be "a robust, independent body with real teeth with its own Charter, powers and responsibilities."

The BBC director-general Lord Tony Hall believes that body could be Ofcom.

Yet at the VLV conference Dame Colette Bowe, who used to chair Ofcom, which already regulates aspects of the BBC, said there was a whole range of more subjective, important stuff about distinctiveness, quality, holding BBC management to account and standing up for viewers which had nothing to do with regulation.

As she spoke a radical idea began to take shape - that what you need for such intuitive work was a body very much like the present BBC Trust.

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