Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson

Vanessa Jackson – Course Director, Media and Communication at Birmingham City University

What does the decision to axe BBC Three, and move off the channel to online only, mean for the audience? Ok, television viewing amongst young adults may have dropped quite radically over the last five years, but does that mean that the opportunity to watch the youth orientated channel should be removed from all young adults? More and more young people may be viewing online content, but it should be recognised that this tends to be a very different, and arguably less social experience.

BBC Three was launched back in 2003, when Greg Dyke was Director General, and was a re-branding of BBC Choice, but it had a difficult gestation, after initially being rejected by the DCMS, for not being distinctive enough; the channel’s first controller, Stuart Murphy, had to re-think the proposition. The identity of the channel took sometime longer to develop. At first the budgets tended to be quite low, and the production values of some of the programmes did not measure up well with those of other BBC channels, but over time the budgets became healthier and the shows better quality, often earning repeats on BBC 1. But some of those early series stepped into interesting territory – for instance trying to make news and current affairs appealing to young people. These experiments were not always fully successful – but were brave forays into challenging areas – and there was a permission to fail, in a way that is not allowed on more mainstream channels! It will be a shame to lose some of this space to innovate, and BBC Three now seems to have a clear identity, and has righty gained the reputation for being able to grow difficult programme areas, like comedy.

The BBC has often struggled with catering for young people. Children, it has always understood and provided a varied and wholesome television offering to, but young adults are a different issue. Radio 1 has long been held up as a flagship service for them, but there was little TV alternative, especially since the demise of shows like Reportage and the Rough Guides in the 1980s and early 1990s, when Janet Street Porter headed up the ‘Yoof’ TV department, and of course with the ending of Top of the Pops in 2006. Since then, BBC Three has been seen as the answer, but not any more, well not at least on your television set – unless you are the lucky owner of a Smart TV. So what does the closure of BBC Three say about the BBC’s commitment to young people – that they aren’t considered an important part of the audience? If that is the case, then how is the BBC going to transition that disenfranchised section of the population into the full BBC fold as they grow into the mainstream older audience, that is so well looked after on other BBC services? The strategy risks permanently alienating that audience, or changing the nature of our viewing experience forever!

So, is this move the thin end of the wedge, is it going to set a precedent to other public service broadcasters? BBC Four could be next online only channel, something which Tony Hall has not denied, and what is the future of the children’s channels? The BBC is lucky enough financially to be able to make this bold, cost saving move, in a way in which ITV, and Channels 4 and 5, cannot. Or at least cannot, until the business models of online advertising can reflect the production costs of high quality programmes.

Is this a political move by the BBC, in effect a warning to government, in the shadow of the next Licence Fee negotiation, which begins in 2015, that reducing the settlement in real terms is going to affect the audience viewing experience in radical new ways? And what is going to happen with the Licence Fee itself? Surely the next Licence Fee settlement will have to see the Licence extended fully to online viewing – otherwise the move of BBC Three will make no sense at all!

So, whilst this strategic move by the BBC does not herald the death of TV – it does perhaps signal the beginning of the end for terrestrial broadcasting, and a shift to online platforms becoming the mainstream for television, or should we say rather, video, viewing.

ReThink Media Conference returns to Birmingham on 25 March 2014 and will provide inspiring insights, informed debate and potential solutions to the many challenges facing the fast evolving digital media sector.

Rethink Media is organised by Birmingham City University – a national leader in media education – and aims to support emerging media by showcasing new business models and the tools to improve content creation, maximise distribution and support audience engagement.

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Vanessa Jackson

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