“BBC Three”


YouTube is a wonderful thing.

From music, to how to’s, to clips from films and TV, to game walkthrough’s and a myriad of thousand other subjects.

But I confess, that I’ve always struggled with the “YouTubers.”

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t personality-driven YouTube videos that I watch. There are the guys at the Global Cycling Network for example, who put out new videos on a very regular basis. Or the photographic programming that Scott Kelby produces.

I suppose it’s really vlogging that leaves me stone cold. While I’m undeniably well outside the age-bracket that these channels tend to target, the relentlessly upbeat and seemingly perfect worlds feel like nothing more than a sugary-sweet US kids TV sitcom.

Two things brought this into sharp focus over the weekend.

The first is the beautifully observed new BBC Three short form comedy, Pls Like. Written by and starring Liam Williams, it’s told in mockumentary format, with “Liam” trying to win a £10,000 competition organised by James Wim (Tim Key) of “Beam” (definitely not to be confused with any similar sounding talent agencies).

Only the first episode is up at time of writing, but it’s so on the mark, that it’s unmissable.

Having watched that video, you might walk away thinking, “Yes, it’s an excellent pastiche, but people aren’t really like that are they?”

It was in this state of mind that I was trying to learn more about Super Chat, a new YouTube initiative for live videos. Essentially this is the ability for commenters to tip video makers – the sort of thing that happens a lot on Twitch. To explain how it works, I watched the following video. This is a real video, and not some kind of arch Black Mirror-esque piece.

It’s the whole hyper-hyper, ring-lighting, primary-coloured, “interesting”-background, fairy-lights, sugar-to-the-max nature of these things that I can’t fathom. It feels similar to the effect of force-feeding a five year-old two litres of full-fat Coke, and their own body-weight in Haribo, in quick succession, before running amok in the John Lewis lighting section.

I fear I’m no closer to understanding the appeal.

Channel Scheduling

In a couple of weeks’ time BBC Three is going to be showing the new third season of Orphan Black. The programme comes from BBC America, and although not a massive ratings hit, garners a lot of critical acclaim, particularly for its star Tatiana Maslany.

The show actually aired in the US between April and June this year, which means BBC Three has taken its time in showing the new series. But what’s really odd is its upcoming scheduling. Despite BBC Three commissioning having been wound down to a certain extent in the expectation that the channel would be “online only” a little earlier than it’s now likely to be and leaving schedules fairly full of repeats, BBC Three is seemingly only initially airing the programme in a graveyard slot.

And by that I mean nightly, sometime between 1am and 3am, in double episodes, stripped across a week. In this way, they’ll burn through the entire series in five days.

What this says to me is one of two things:

– BBC Three really doesn’t care about the programme. Although it must cost a relatively minimal amount (Although the machinations of a BBC Worldwide channel, now co-owned by AMC, licencing a show to a BBC national channel are beyond me), even the US version of The Apprentice, which nobody in this country cares about, and is full of hard-to-edit-out blatant product placement, gets better slots on BBC Three than that. And it’s not as though Orphan Black doesn’t have its fans.

or, much likelier,

– BBC Three is trying a bit of an experiment in binge viewing. The BBC introduced “series stacking” or “series catchup” in 2008. For BBC-made programmes, it meant that viewers could watch every of episode of, say, Doctor Who, while it was still on-air. It wasn’t available for every series due to rights restrictions, but it meant that at the end of a series’ run, for a single week, every episode was available to watch in one go. The reason it was only there for a single week was because 7 day iPlayer catch-up prevailed at the time. Last year, the BBC changed this around, and made everything available for 30 days. You had longer to catch-up, but the quid pro quo was that full series stacking was no longer available. Early episodes of a series dropped off the iPlayer as later ones became available. At no point would a full series of more than four weekly episodes be available to binge. Until the BBC amends its rights agreements, this is likely to remain the case. But by stripping double episodes across weekday nights, BBC Three effectively makes the whole new series of Orphan Black available to binge from the Saturday onwards for around 25 days. I suspect that this is what they’re going to try. Promoting watching it via iPlayer and perhaps running the show on a more usual weekly basis at that point.

Binge viewing definitely seems to be the “thing” of the moment, and I’ve found myself doing it more and more. If it’s not House of Cards, Daredevil or Narcos, it’s a box-set on Sky, storing up series on a PVR (Hands up if, like me, you now have two series of Peaky Blinders awaiting a viewing?) or an actual box-set of shiny discs.

As BBC Director General Tony Hall said only last week in a major speech about Charter Renewal:

“And I now want to experiment with the BBC issuing bigger and bolder series all at once on iPlayer, so viewers have the option of ‘binge watching’.”

Could this be another attempt at experimenting with this? The BBC notably introduced Car Share with Peter Kay earlier this year on a similar basis, although that didn’t require a nocturnal airing before it emerged initially as an iPlayer. We’ve seen Sky too play with the idea, carving the final series of Strike Back (A John Whittingdale favourite according to the speech linked below!) into two binge-able parts, as well as making series like Veep and documentary series The Jinx available to binge watch. Everyone is experimenting with the idea.

And while I’m writing about scheduling, it’s worth mentioning the element of new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s speech at the RTS Conference that has been widely picked up upon. Yes, the Terms of Trade section of his speech was more important, but it was this that got everyone’s attention:

“It is also important to look at the impact that the BBC has on its commercial rivals and – again to give just one example – whether it is sensible for its main evening news bulletin to go out at the same time as ITV’s.”

What a strange thing to highlight. It’s clearly completely out of remit for a minister to be worrying about how programmes are scheduled, beyond ensuring that PSBs broadcast news within primetime.

He’s talking about the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News going out at the same time as ITV’s News at Ten. Except that five seconds’ worth of searching might remind him that the reason the BBC switched to 10pm was because ITV had essentially vacated the slot in 1999 as it moved to first 11pm before then becoming the “News at When.” It ran entertainment programmes at 10pm first every night of the week, and later just some nights. It was again ITV who moved the programme back to 10pm where it by now competed with the BBC.

As with other scheduling decisions, is the BBC expected to wait to see where ITV deigns to put a programme and then schedule around it? For the most part schedulers do avoid obvious clashes because if you run two programmes aimed at the same audience simultaneously then you’re not going to get as good viewing figures as you might. But it’s a rare person who feels the need to watch both the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and ITV’s News at Ten. And let’s not forget that Newsnight clashes too!

But all of this becomes ever more irrelevant in an age where we choose ourselves what we’re going to watch at the time of our choosing rather than a scheduler’s. And for news, there are of course multiple 24 hour services available around the clock, as well as numerous online options.

With enormous irony, on the very evening when Whittingdale was speaking, ITV had shifted its main news bulletin to 11pm for no other reason than because they wanted maximise the audience for their Champions’ League highlights at 10pm, a scheduling decision that one imagines will continue for subsequent rounds of the competition.

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.