Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you’ve never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark’s The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it’s remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4’s Loose Ends. If you’re worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast – the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation’s funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC’s enemies – if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to “Radio 3 with pictures”, twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn’t do ratings wars. “It’s your BBC!”, Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent – so whilst “The Thick of It” and “Getting On” did very well for Four, it will be more “Two Pints of Lager” and “The King is Dead” for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three “youth” angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending “60 Second News”, the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote – for all the wrong reasons – is “so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works.”

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as “Three verses Four” becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of “Family Guy” and “American Dad” don’t have to sit through “Newsnight” for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It’s the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. “Down with what the youth want!” cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. “It’s all just too vulgar”

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of “shock, awe, and celebrity” sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It’s not too much to say “It’s not exactly SKY One, is it?”. On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a ‘make under’ programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of “Eastenders” and “Little Britain”. On Wednesday there was a ‘secret wedding’ reality show and the film “Sliding Doors”. Tomorrow, an episode of “Total Wipeout” and a rerun of “EastEnders”.

But, wait. Go back a few days to “Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum”, in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a “life lesson reality show”. Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there’s “Good Will Hunting”. Not exactly “The Hangover II”.

Despite its brash logo and ‘street’ outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I’d choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit “Wallander”. I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there’s not a 24-hour “T4 Channel”? It just wouldn’t stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and “The Killing”, Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge – though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren’t exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I’m a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. “Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!” at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy – the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery – is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be “top sliced”. Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all – to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock….but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.

It’s your BBC…

I almost choked on my Aquafresh this morning. “And now we go live to the scene of Jamie Bulger’s kidnapping all those years ago…”

Would you believe it, there it was, a BBC commentator, at 6 in the morning, live outside the Strand Shopping Centre in Bootle, looking for all the world as a scene from The Day Today. “If you want to send in your memories of the gruesome kidnap and murder, we’ll love to here from you,” said the bloke with the bad hair and ill-fitting suit. “Viewers who press the red button can access detailed CGI reconstructions from that tragic day, Freeview viewers are advised to go on-line where there is the added extra of a moderated chat-room.”

You see, the BBC is pretty darn faultless, in my mind. There are certain elements that are clearly in need of surgery, if not complete amputation, and some time ago I made the case for scrapping BBC Three as a sure fire way to make more friends than enemies under the current circumstances.

The “strategic review” is something of a dog’s dinner. Rushed into hacking off their own limbs before the oncoming Murdoch/Cameron tag-team do it for them, the BBC has come up with a document full of glaring contradictions and half-baked ideas. Why capitulate so easily? They fell apart more rapidly than a Frenchman on hearing the passing footsteps of a German with a heavy chestcold.

Scrapping 6Music and Asian Network has no logic or business case at all; indeed hearing BBC executives back-pedal yesterday suggests a full plug-pull on these networks is not going to occur. Put simply, the Corporation cannot stay to its remit for public service broadcasting while removing the stations which would make Lord Reith proud. Where exactly would Asian Network’s programming fit upon its disconnection? Edith Bowman may not agree to 30 minutes of Devotional Prayer being tagged on to the end of her chart rundown.

I agree with some elements of the “strategic review”. BBC News must be improved. It has fallen into the same repetitious, ticker-tape sensationalism it was supposed to avoid. I welcome plans to reduce the amount of money invested in imported shows, more so if it means BBC Four being turned into – or turned BACK into – the BBC Knowledge channel from which it regenerated.

It is easy to join the Daily Mail/Murdoch/”biased BBC” brigades in cheering every time the network tries to improve itself. The problem, of course, is that the anti-Beeb consensus act like the Knight from Holy Grail, dismissing the network’s cuts as nothing more than flesh wounds. That 6Music is “listened to only by a low number” cannot be synchronised with the argument – from the same people – that 6Music “is a threat to commercial stations”. Threat to whom? XFM? Have you tried listening to XFM? It’s like being trapped in The Tash in Blackpool. FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. ON REPEAT.

So, BBC, these planned cuts – “strategic review” indeed – do not add up to a compelling case to begin hacking the corporation to shreds in the Kill Bill model. Reduce the pay of the biggest starts, invest in comedy that makes us laugh, ensure QI reaches the end of the alphabet, sell Andy Parsons to the highest bidder, stop the NEWS department becoming indistinguishable from Live From Studio Five, and please remember that “public service broadcasting” means more Adam & Joe with less “Snog, Marry, Avoid”.

Murdoch and Cameron know the licence fee discussions will start under their watch. I’d prefer it if the BBC didn’t make it easier for their enemies to tear them apart.

BBC Three is top-slice lamb

James and Rupert Murdoch are increasing their attacks against rival media and things will not get very pretty between now and the next UK general election in the summer of 2010. In the eyes of News International, the BBC is ripe for picking apart, not least because of the amount of “free” services from on-line news to original childrens’ programming for an ultimate cost to the consumer far below that of a typical Sky subscription package. If the senior Murdoch’s threatened court action against copyright fraud is successful the “news” tab on the top of peoples’ iGoogle pages will be one of the most high profile casualties in this fight against media rivals.

For fans of the BBC, the talk of “top slicing” the licence fee sends shivers up the spine. Conservative leader David Cameron has allowed his Shadow Cabinet to talk freely about selling off bits of the Beeb, or to assist commercial rivals with monies taken from the TV Licence hitherto reserved to keeping the BBC delivering its programmes on television, radio, and through the online platforms such as iPlayer. Expect the now passionately Tory (and Murdoch owned) Sun newspaper to increase its support for asking Auntie to give up the money underneath her mattress for the good of commercial health in the country; first to go “part subscription” will undoubtedly be iPlayer, followed by the inevitable consolidation of regional radio stations.

Even as a fan of the BBC, I accept that the digital age means all of the current certainties of broadcasting must now exist with question marks overhead. Little things seen as somewhat inconsequential at the time – such as the internet only broadcast of the England v Ukraine qualifier – could well be important footnotes in the history of broadcasting come the ending of analogue television in 2012. That the BBC are somewhat “shielded” from the stormwinds of commercial factors will come under more scrutiny than ever; the superteam of an angry Murdoch and vote-chasing Cameron will combine against the Corporation like never before.

One potential victim in all this that may be accepted in the fight to save the BBC in its current form, with a licence fee pretty much (if not entirely) untouched and the online services free from subscription. If anything has to go, why not BBC Three?

The former BBC Choice (not “BBC Quirk”) has struggled to win over any of its critics. The current programming is a muddle of sensationalism (“Too Fat To Hunt”, “World’s Strictest Parents”), and the kind of instant repeats expected from ITV 3 or Dave, such as the seemingly endless reruns of Doctor Who and Merlin. I am a huge Doctor Who fan (Second Doctor, since you ask), but even I have to wonder if there is any point in watching the Daleks in Manhattan every third week. American Dad and Family Guy should never have been shunted off BBC Two in the first place, and when stripped of all the above BBC Three barely seems worthy of a channel at all. If the Corporation wants to support new talent in acting or writing, allow BBC Four to run a series on it.

The BBC will struggle enough to justify the worryingly described “black music station” 1Xtra when the time comes to do so; in the meantime it has to check if the millions spent on BBC Three really do mean value for money. When it’s possible to split its schedule to other channels so easily it becomes clear that there’s a Murdoch sniper trained right at its head. On a multi-channel platform against Sky One or Virgin1, the loser is BBC Three. Sadly any talk of “top slicing” will mean accepting sacrificing something from the Corporation’s network: BBC Three would seem to be the lamb its best to serve up in an attempt to keep either Murdoch or Cameron away from any tastier cuts.