On Wednesday, the BBC revealed plans to axe youth-oriented TV channel BBC Three, cutting its budget from £85 million to £25 million, and moving all programming online.
This move is already inspiring public outcry, partly due to BBC Three’s target audience. About a third of BBC Three viewers are 16 to 36, and the channel’s recent hits include dramas like Torchwood and Being Human, and various popular comedy shows including The Mighty Boosh.
The decision to switch BBC Three to purely online programming is being framed as a positive step towards engaging with younger viewers who no longer tend to watch live TV. However, the accompanying budget cut translates to less money for youth-oriented, experimental television than before. Ash Atalla, producer of the U.K. version of The Office, is already characterising this as a shift toward older, more conservative output for the BBC.
“It feels like a 60-year-old man in a golf jumper has walked into a really good nightclub and turned the music off so he can hear more Mozart next door,” he said. “Today the BBC has got whiter, older, and more middle class because it’s the BBC3 audience that is the most diverse of all channels.”
It’s also worth noting that £30 million of the planned budget cuts will be transferred to flagship channel BBC One, rather than being eliminated entirely. Many people are interpreting this as an ideological choice to remove funding for BBC Three’s more diverse programming, rather than it being an economically motivated decision.
— russell tovey (@russelltovey) March 5, 2014
New, innovative and risky comedy/drama/docs should not be sacrificed for yet more safe, predictable BBC1 drama. Please RT. #SaveBBC3
— UK TV Ratings (@TVRatingsUK) March 6, 2014
— Nick Sutton (@suttonnick) March 5, 2014
On Twitter, the BBC Three budget cuts are already incredibly unpopular, with numerous British TV personalities speaking out and sharing links to a Change.org petition to save BBC Three. The petition has received more than 60,000 signatures overnight, indicating that BBC Three’s audience isn’t quite so unengaged as the BBC presumably thought.
When coupled with the recent announcement of a new commercial TV download service, it seems like the BBC’s attitude to the Internet is taking one step forward and two steps back. While it’s true that young people are watching TV online more and more, BBC Three actually had the highest ratings among 16 to 34 year olds in the U.K. last year. Also, while young people are perceived as being the main audience for online streaming, in reality the BBC’s iPlayer service is popular across all demographics, with its annual online viewership ratings dominated by family sci-fi drama Doctor Who (BBC One) and car show Top Gear (BBC Two).
Over the past few years, we’ve seen TV networks around the world struggle to deal with audiences who prefer to watch online instead of tuning in live. Some channels deal with this by cracking down on piracy, while others have created their own online streaming services or made deals with Netflix and Amazon.
The difference in this situation is that the BBC is a publicly funded service, intended to represent and cater to Britain’s various demographics. Without solid evidence that BBC Three is actively failing its viewers, it’s difficult to see why such a drastic budget cut is necessary—particularly when much of the money isn’t being saved or even invested in new online audiences, but given to one of the BBC’s more traditional channels, which already has a budget more than 10 times that of BBC Three.
The good news is that because the BBC works for the British public, the planned budget cuts have to go through something called a Public Values Test before they can actually be finalized. In other words, if it seems like enough people are angry about this to put a significant dent in the BBC’s reputation, they just might change their minds.
Photo via i-am-with-torchwood/Tumblr