Sunday, March 9, 2014

3 - not quite the magic number

The proposed demise of BBC3 has been greeted by howls of rage from its well-remunerated stars (like Jack Whitehall and Russell Kane) and almost complete indifference by the licence payers. 

By yesterday only 150,000 had signed an online petition against the axing, which is about the number that watch the live transmission of the average show, against the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on the network so far. 

Since the network first launched, younger viewers have stubbornly ignored the broadcaster’s efforts to reach them. Which is no fault of BBC3, of course, because everyone knows that the majority of young people find television utterly irrelevant to their lives. 

With the exception of The Voice and maybe Ant and Dec, there’s precious little TV that would appeal to the average 18 year old. These viewers like their media in bite-sized 3-minute chunks, not hour-long programmes. They surf, not cruise. They want to be in control, and hate being told what to watch (which is the whole point of broadcasting), particularly by out-of-touch commissioning editors from London. 

About 5 years ago, in a vain attempt to restore Newcastle to its place as a major provider of youth television programming (this is, after all, Europe’s party city that brought you the iconic and outrageous The Tube), we decided to offer BBC Three a new kind of youth show. Jo and I decided to first find out just what a youth audience wanted, and in particular what it thought of BBC Three. So we put together a focus group of around 100 young people. 

The findings would have upset the BBC. The only media content this generation sought out were comedy, music, edgy documentaries about people with three heads, and things that were useful to their lives, like where to buy the cheapest trainers. They got lots of this from YouTube. They watched a bit of Channel 4, because they liked Big Brother, Shameless and the teen drama Skins. 

But, even though BBC Three had been on air for nearly 5 years, and had already spent around £300million on original programming specifically targeting them, the only programme they related to was Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, a comedy about young people who spent most of their lives down the pub. Which appeared to be the main recreational activity of our focus group. 

Most saw no point to BBC Three at all. It didn’t come on air until 7pm, when they were all out having a good time, and its output appeared to be made by old middle-class people. 

So Jo wrote a treatment for a programme that would put the viewers in control. It was to be broadcast from the party boat that used to be moored under the Tyne Bridge. There’d be comedians, fashion, bands and so on and, like a real party, they’d all be happening at the same time, in different parts of the boat. The viewers could travel around the boat using the digital red button, and would decide which band it wanted to perform. They would select which of several celebrities would be allowed up the gangplank to join the show – the rejects would be sent back to London without getting out of their stretch limos. 

It was crazy, anarchic, and utterly impossible to produce, of course. 85% of our focus group said they’d watch it every week if it played at 11pm when they got back from the Bigg Market. How wise of the Controller of BBC Three to instead select a nice safe show called Lily Allen and Friends. 

Tony Hall’s decision to move the channel to an online-only environment is entirely sane. Young people will find content if it relates to them, and with an enormous budget of £30m, surely the BBC will be able to deliver at least half a dozen series of interest, which is all it ever did in the past.  The new Three should also be able to create thousands of “digital assets”, the new buzzword for shortform online content. 

All the best ideas will be repeated on BBC1, so it will remain a nursery slope for new talent. Even Jack Whitehall’s mortgage will be safe.

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