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.

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telly addicts

So, farewell then, analogue television.

From tomorrow in two English regions, and Wales, the second installment of the national switch-off begins. For people of all ages an era ends: for my generation it is perhaps the final installment of a gradual up-grade process from the four channels in the 80s, through basic Cable television, to the ability to pause live programming in a fashion not even predicted by the usually excitable studio of Tomorrow’s World.

Looking back through my memory banks shows just how important in my life the box in the corner of the room has been. As a child, I was particularly over-excited by regional-opt outs, icons and logos, anything it would seem except the programmes themselves. The faintest echo of the Children In Need “Let’s go round the regions” anthem still filters around my head, a triumph of my anorak nature and the ability of the Beeb to write a catchy tune which could withstand the slight delays inherent in switching from the studios in Edinburgh to a car-park outside Eccles. If you want to help – DRUM – help Children In Need. It’s all flooding back….

In the early years of cable television in this area, I would tiptoe to the front room to channel flick until the sun came up. In later years it was, I concede, more to do with the promise of untold thrills during The Adult Channel’s preview adverts, although at first even the chance of watching a channel close down that wasn’t the BBC interested me something rotten. In those days – how odd does that sound, and yet how true! – BBC One still closed down, playing the national anthem over a spinning globe before fading to black.

As a defender of the licence fee I hope talk of “top slicing” the funding to other channels does not occur if the consequence is a weaker, lesser BBC. That most of my viewing and listening comes from the BBC is not just an unwillingness to channel-surf; I happen to prefer most of the Corporation’s output to that on ITV and, sadly I have to say, a lot of what is now broadcast on Channel 4. There was a time when it felt daring and exciting to watch 4, often with the sound turned down and a pillow under my bedroom door to ensure nobody spotted I was watching The Word, or the “red light zone” themed programming seemingly broadcast for the benefit of my youthful development (if I can phrase it that way).

Channel 4 maintains some high standards, although even its own time flagship programmes Cutting Edge, and Dispatches, have become sensationalist and boring.

Tomorrow will mark the next-step in the advancing of Britain’s digital broadcasting age. I must look back with some nostalgia at the advances of yesteryear which somehow seem terribly quaint by today’s standards: flick a switch on a channel now to access the all-day broadcasting schedules of a hundred channels, on the former Cable North West service there was one screen with a scrolling schedule information display and a 30-minute cut-off.

Maybe the box in the corner will be pushed back even further into the shadows if television-on-demand, iPlayer, downloads and so on continue to become more popular with the viewing public. Maybe television itself will cease to be thought of in terms of separate channels and networks as commitment to single brands continues to dissolve. All I know is, the manner of watching the screen has certainly changed beyond all recognition but the little child inside is still humming the theme tune to Live & Kicking and wondering if he’ll ever see the HTVWales logo again…..