Is BBC Three Facing Oblivion?

The BBC announced last week that the planned move for BBC Three from television to an online stream will be concluded by March 2016. The channel aimed mainly, but not exclusively, at a young audience has had its critics in the past, including high-profile figures such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman, but many more have been vociferous in their support of the channel and their opposition to the decision. A deeper problem surfaces when it was announced the channel will run on 50 per cent of its current programming budget.

Issues of funding cuts have been cited as the reason for the chop, although one surmises the decision was based partly on content. Criticism of BBC Three centres mainly on the type of programmes they broadcast, the majority of which being comedies. Successful series such as Gavin and Stacey and Russell Howard’s Good News have been a source of pride, but the BBC Trust has regularly come under fire for approving the airing of ‘droll’ comedy, in the words of Paxman, such as Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show and similar titles which play on lazy working class stereotypes. Despite such titles enduring poor critiques, ratings have remained at roughly the same level for years; around 1.2 per cent  of the audience share. In fact, BBC Three’s ratings have been consistently better than those of sister-channel BBC Four.

Recent offerings have been somewhat more positive, particularly their documentaries on discrimination and taboo subjects. British rapper Professor Green’s Suicide and Me brought the particularly delicate subject of male suicide to a younger audience and was generally well received. It was indicative of a change of direction, with the BBC perhaps seeking to improve the image of the channel before the move online.

Whether or not the BBC’s decision will affect viewership remains to be seen, although the ‘Save BBC Three’ campaign has predicted ratings will inevitably dwindle as a consequence. While online streaming is more popular than ever in urban centres, it does not allow for potential viewers in areas without a broadband or mobile connection, accounting for 18 per cent of the population.

The move will please the anti-BBC Three brigade but it is a decision which ultimately risks losing a younger audience to Channel 4, which is in no way positive news for the BBC. In an ever competitive industry, one feels the BBC should be doing a lot more to engage with the audience rather than limiting it. This move online may very well jeopardise the channel, turning it into a backwater of the ever-powerful BBC.

Image: Robert Couse-Baker

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