BBC Spin Puts Onus on BBC3 to Reinvent Online TV

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Although viewers and fans of shows like Pramface are petitioning the BBC to prevent the axe falling on BBC3, the channel looks doomed—in its linear incarnation at least.

The BBC announced this week that come autumn 2015 and pending approval by overseer the BBC Trust, the youth service would be available on iPlayer only, marking the first time in the BBC's venerable history that it would close a channel.

The move is intended to shave £100m a year as the BBC looks to cost-cut ahead of its bid to have the licence fee, funded by UK tax payers, renewed in 2016.

The content budget of an online BBC3 service will be £30m, representing a £60m saving on current annual costs for the channel. Yet at the same, BBC Director General Tony Hall signalled that £30m of that saving would be routed to produce new drama to air on BBC1.

The DG's argument, which he outlined in an email to BBC staff, is that BBC3's audience makes serving online only content a straightforward and forward-thinking choice.

"Young audiences are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world," he said. "25 percent of viewing by 16-24 year olds is to catch-up or other screens and over the next few years we expect that to reach 40%. We recognise that, for now, most of this audience still do their viewing on television, and that is why we plan to show BBC Three’s long-form content on either BBC One or BBC Two."

He added: "I’m convinced that the BBC as a creative organisation will be able to reinvent a space for young people on the iPlayer that will be bold, innovative, and distinctive. It will not just be a TV channel distributed online—it will be an opportunity to look at new forms, formats, different durations, and more individualised and interactive content."

Hall has already placed the iPlayer as key to the future for public service broadcasting and argued that the licence fee—currently at £145 per year for web, radio and TV—should be extended to include the service.

However, the argument masks a fundamental fact about TV viewing in the UK in that online viewing remains a fraction of total screen share, even among the apparently fickle youth demographic.

Figures released just a couple of weeks ago by commercial TV marketing body Thinkbox underlined yet again that the TV set remains at the heart of UK viewing. Only 1.5% of total viewing in 2013 was watched via mobile platforms, Thinkbox reported. The average viewer watched three hours and 55 minutes of TV a day last year, according to Thinkbox. Just three and a half minutes was watched via mobile devices.

Even the BBC states that just 2% of the population access viewing solely on iPlayer.

The reinvented online BBC3 is being spun as a "creatively energising and innovative move" by Danny Cohen, Director of BBC Television.

In the same email to BBC staff he said: "BBC Three will continue to do all the things we love but it will also have the freedom to break traditional shackles and allow the BBC to be a leader in digital change. It will not just be a TV channel distributed online."

He added: "There is a wonderful creative opportunity here to develop new formats with new programme lengths—and to reach young audiences in an ever growing number of ways. Will we still want to make all of our current affairs documentaries at 60 minutes in the age of Vice and YouTube? Will we find that contemporary documentary and formats work much better at 40 or 45 minutes than 58? What will we learn about the length we want to make each episode of our dramas or comedies, perhaps learning from new market players like Netflix and Amazon?

"Although I’m sure that video—televisual—content will be at the core of the new BBC Three, we’ll need to challenge ourselves to think and create differently... and it will allow the BBC to be ready for the next waves of disruptive digital disruption."

BBC3 launched in 2003, is on air between 7 p,m. and 4 a.m. daily, and has been home to comedies like Pramface and Gavin and Stacey, documentaries including the BAFTA-winning Our War, and imported shows like Family Guy.

Its digital terrestrial bandwidth will be used for a timeshifted channel, BBC1+1. Further cuts to BBC resources and channels are likely, with some form of merger between channels BBC2 and BBC4 mooted in some quarters.

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