Kate Bulkley, Media Analyst.

BBC is embracing the future

By Kate Bulkley

Broadcast News

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For Broadcast March 13, 2014

If quality is maintained, online shift is good news, says Kate Bulkley

The BBC’s decision to make BBC3 an online-only channel is either an audacious step into the digital future or a piece of broadcasting lunacy. As the saying goes: one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

‘BBC3 closure shock’ has been the headline. But there’s no need to play a requiem. Its not dying, it’s moving with the times, right?

What director general Tony Hall has done in rethinking BBC3 is to implement the kind of bold management tactic that would win praise in the commercial sector. More young people are watching more television on more screens that are not traditional TVs. So why not send your flagship youth-oriented channel in that direction too?

Ask a 13-year-old about ‘TV viewing’ and YouTube and Netflix are just as valid as anything that TV traditionalists are offering. And unlike a commercially funded channel, Hall doesn’t have to worry that the advertising money isn’t the same online as on TV. This move is all about putting the audience first.

Why does being non-linear stop BBC3 from uncovering more genius shows like Bad Education or Bluestone 42 (pictured)? Can’t an online channel attract more ideas, not less? Can’t it be a vehicle for short-form video, an interactive online ideas factory offering clips from new, young film-makers?

The kneejerk reaction to all of this is a bit like how journalists felt when newspapers started to go online. Everyone wanted to stay in the paper because the paper was more prestigious and more people read it.

Perceptions and audience behaviour change over time, and so far what we see is the YouTubes of the world desperate to look more like TV channels. Online youth brand Vice Media recently signed a deal with TV producer Fremantle Media to create content around food that works both online and on TV. This kind of convergence seems to be right on trend.

The warning light is that the BBC must be sure it doesn’t get so far in front of the curve that it ends up being run over. Hall has already admitted that taking BBC3 online has been pulled forward by at least a couple of years, because of the need to find savings.

You have to admire him for avoiding salami-slicing, but there are questions about how much of an overall saving shuttering BBC3 as a linear channel is going to provide – not least as £30m is being committed to the BBC1 drama budget.

Make no mistake, there are big politics at work here: Hall is giving licence fee payers, politicians and the government a glimpse of what the BBC might be like if it does become a subscription service, as has been mooted.

We’ll only see what the move really means further down the road. The travesty would be less and lower quality output on a BBC3 that becomes a niche-brand shadow of itself. The BBC will do everything it can to make sure that doesn’t happen. Hall says he wants the BBC iPlayer to become “the front door to the BBC” and the revamped BBC3 is obviously a big part of that.

‘BBC3 closure’ gets headlines just as the BBC moves into licence fee renewal territory. TV is not a hermetic world any more, and our finest broadcaster has just stood up and said so.

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