Written by TV

Chronicle of BBC Three’s Death Foretold

Today news began to leak out about how the BBC is next going to be saving money. BBC Three is going “online-only”. The official announcement isn’t until tomorrow, but there seems enough truth to the rumours so far.

From a selfishly personal perspective, I’m rather glad that it’s BBC Three that’s getting the [online] “chop” rather than BBC Four. I believe that BBC Four is irreplaceable, whereas large chunks of BBC Three are. But that’s perhaps reflective of me and my viewing habits.

The TLDR version of the story is that BBC Three goes online and saves lots of broadcasting costs.

However, I imagine that there is slightly more to it than that.

In the most recent Annual Report, the costs of BBC Three and BBC Four are as per the following chart.

What you’ll quickly note is that the distribution costs – those largely attributable to broadcasting the channel over a range of platforms – are relatively modest. Indeed, in recent days we’ve learnt that the BBC has agreed with Sky that it and the other PSBs shouldn’t have to pay carriage on that platform. I imagine that it’s seeking similar deals from other carriers – notably Virgin Media.

Indeed, while it might save £4.6m by switching the service off, I’d anticipate that the proposed BBC One+1 channel would swallow those costs right back up again. Indeed I’d imagine that the BBC would like to keep the relatively high channel numbers available for BBC One+1.

The really big cost of BBC Three is the nearly £90m for “Content.” That’s the actual programmes it shows. Simply putting the same programmes online on iPlayer isn’t going to reduce any of those costs. So we might must be looking at some quite severe curtailing of what output BBC Three continues to deliver.

Some of those infrastructure costs probably need to be looked at carefully. I suspect that some costs are pretty fixed and that they’re “recharged” within the BBC to the various channels that use them. Removing a channel from the mix doesn’t actually save any money in the end, and it just bumps costs up for other channels.

While there is little reason in an online world for BBC Three to “show” repeats of Eastenders, Top Gear and Doctor Who, that’s not really going to save any money. The films that randomly pop-up won’t make much difference either.

Original commissions are bound to fall. Comedy is the obvious target here, although there is also drama that will end up being cut. I can’t see that the BBC could continue to buy imported shows for the station. An opportunity for someone else to pick up free-to-air Family Guy rights?

What I would say about comedy though is that before BBC Three launched, the natural home of developing “edgy” comedy was actually BBC Two. And in many ways it’s lost out. Yes – we’ve now got Inside No 9 and The Trip – but I feel certain that Uncle or Bad Education will either live on online, or could find a home on BBC Two.

It has to be said that the 16-34 target audience that the BBC Three service licence says it should be aimed at, is well looked after commercially. ITV2 and E4 also offer free-to-air channels that target this audience. Certainly they’re not as good as BBC Three and have little if any public service values.

Then again, the BBC has to offer this audience something to safeguard the licence fee. Does the BBC properly cater for this audience beyond BBC Three. They need to be persuaded of the value of the Licence Fee too.

Going online only does bring some questions though.

In metropolitan upmarket London, every 17 year old might have a laptop or iPad with which to watch Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, but that’s still not the case nationally. So are younger people in poorer environments losing out?

The most recent Ofcom Technology Tracker data suggests that while tablet penetration has reached 35%, and among 16-24s it’s reached 37%, for those in the poorer DE classes, it’s only 20%. And amongst with household incomes under £11,500, it’s at 15%. The same pattern is true for other devices like laptops. Indeed only 66% of DE households, and 52% of low income households have the internet at home. Online only does disenfranchise a lot of people.

And the other implication is that this does, as Tony Hall said in a speech recently, give the BBC a much stronger argument during Charter Renewal, to demand that anyone watching iPlayer online needs to buy a TV Licence. Although this was always on the cards anyway.

Still, look back to that chart above. If the costs are reduced to BBC Four’s overall cost levels, that would save roughly half the £100m that they’re looking to find.

The detail will make interesting reading, as will the the BBC Trust’s view. I’m not sure that there’ll be quite the backlash there was when 6 Music was threatened, or that there would be if BBC Four was in line for closure. But on the other hand, there’s already a nascent campaign to save the channel, lead by comedians in particular. Nothing’s going to happen very fast.