Three can still be the Magic Number

As a youngster desperate to watch The Word and Eurotrash, I had to employ as many clever-clever techniques as I could to stop my parents from finding out. Pillows against the door, volume down to 0, subtitles on, standing up (rather than risk creaking on the bed or a chair). I think that, on the whole, I got away with it.

All that, though, was another world away from television today, and what young people access for entertainment, music, humour. Fixed schedules, weekly ‘event’ television, dedicated strands on specific channels – all these and more besides are as outdated to younger audiences as Swapshop was to me in the 1990s. It’s little wonder that the BBC, subjected to justifying every penny of a reduced licence fee, can’t be seen hanging around with its ‘youth’  output, or be seen to have too traditional an attitude towards the provision of programmes for a younger audience. It is no longer the case that Network 7 (and there’s a contemporary reference, kids) can be used to fob off opinionated teens once a week.

BBC Three, the oft-rebranded, re-focused, re-calibrated youth and young people channel on digital television, is to be moved away from the box and onto the Internet. For most of its audience, there will be no difference. Streaming television, be it through the BBC’s own iPlayer or something like Netflix, is second nature for the kids of today. ‘Must see’ dramas and comedies can be accessed through alternative means, and frankly, there’s more than one way to watch Family Guy of an evening. (And on that point, moving Family Guy and American Dad to a post-Newsnight slot on BBC Two could have countless positive consequences.)

The problem with BBC Three has been one consistent issue with confusion. Was it the launchpad for new talent, and if so, why did so many pilots and trials fail? Was is the dumping ground for shock-docs, and if not, how many times could the Beeb say it was constructive to show parents acting surprised at their drunk children having a good time on holiday? Using Being Human as a catch-all calling card for all that is good about Three is useless when Lee Nelson was given two (count them, two) series. The BBC should be doing more than presenting an all-year round YouTube clips show, too, which Good News… has been since the dawn of time.

Rather than mourning the loss about Three, let’s look at the possibilities. More digital space for broadcasting footage from festivals and minority sports, perhaps? If the Beeb wants to think a little differently, why not use the CBBC frequency for teen/youth programmes after close-down?

The future of the BBC is always and forever in doubt. Every penny has to be justified, perhaps more than ever. Five years ago, I suggested that axing BBC Three would be a good thing, and I still do.

Saturday night at the 19th Hole, live on BBC One

The economic health of the nation can be measured through many means. The moral health of the nation, what the Nepalese call the measure of national happiness, is far less easily quantifiable. If you’re a tabloid journalist or a middling member of an ITV daytime chat show with a space to fill, though, take one icon of the British high-street and watch the comment sections fill up with thousands of words time, after time, after time.

Across the country, women of a certain age and income level treat M&S as economists treat the daily updates from the ONS (let us avoid the rare moments of men being concerned with Marks, because that did necessitate me searching for the words “Jeremy Paxman” and “underpants”). Confidence in the High Street (future of which should be a future blog post) seems to rest on whether every element of “Marks'” is doing very well or tanking horribly. The first whiff of an unsavoury gusset gets the Fashion columns pouring out into the Business section within ten minutes. There’s no stopping presenters of moving wallpaper television from coming over all “Massacre of first born in Damascus (Reuters)” when the opportunity arises to ask “Is the Per Una range completely ignorant about the shape of an English woman’s bust?”

Consumer confidence can be measured from the reaction to “Which” magazine tutting at an M&S trifle in much the same way as earthquakes off the Pakistani coast can be picked up in California. It is precisely because they occupy such a cosy place by the fire that the middle classes use them as both stable go-to confidence boost and easy tut-tut country’s gone to the dogs easy target. Empires fall, politicians waffle, the middle classes have an opinion on M&S maxi dresses.

If ‘cosy’ is the M&S brand as well as its place on the “High Street”, what to choose as its equivalent elsewhere in British life? I think we all know the answer to that…

Placed in the television schedules as something of an unbreakable habit, a comfort in tough times, and guaranteed hangover cure (for the Sunday repeats, and not always successfully), “Match of the Day” is analogue football in a digital world. And that’s not necessarily stinging criticism, just as shaking your head at the sight of four-dozen canary yellow polo necks is not criticism of M&S. As wiser people have commented many times before, “MotD” has not been designed to compete with SKY or ESPN or BT Sport; nor are any of the pundits required to pick apart each move or tactic beyond anything accepted as a talking point or controversy. If “MotD” is considered ‘safe’ then that’s the programme doing its job…

……And yet here’s the “but”. Roy Hodgson is to appear as a guest/pundit this weekend. Promising? Probably not, and nor ‘exciting’, ‘interesting’, or anything else like that. The “safety” of the BBC’s flagship football highlights programme has long since wallowed in ‘complacency’, and that’s never good. For many years the show has struggled to wander out of the golf club/old boy’s network approach to sports broadcasting, stuck in an era of “World of Sport” and “Grandstand”. There’s ‘safe’ (nodding) and there’s ‘safe’ (shaking head).

“MotD” is the closest most blokes have to M&S; that safe, secure, not always agenda setting constant that for generations would always be guaranteed to provide just what you need at no great cost. Unfortunately, and just as with M&S and their dodgy autumn/winter collections, the BBC has considered ‘no great cost’ to mean more than ‘analysis of the weekend games’. With the Hansen/Lawro dream team, that ‘autumn/winter’ collection was always more ‘permanent winter’. When not content with sounding utterly indifferent to the continuing existence of football as a sport at all, Mark Lawrenson was being picked apart on line for failing to predict any weekend games to within 15 goals or so of reality. And yet he, and professional grump Alan Hansen, brought home the five/six-figure pay checks.

Nobody wants “MotD” to undergo too radical a change, least of all the casual fans/viewers who make up the majority of viewing figures. There are so many post-match analysts out there – not just SKY with their massive fuck-off television screens but blogs, podcasts and Twitter feeds – that the BBC knows nothing good would come from wholesale changes in one go, for just like The Daily Mail with Ed Miliband, going all out to prove a point often ends up looking horrific. Changing “MotD” into the Football Ramble in one leap would alienate, not attract.

That said, the BBC should have learned about the dangers by now (Colin Murray, in general, Colin Murray wine-tasting specifically). What many critics want is the end of the BBC’s very smug and often blatantly lazy old boy’s ties. Whilst not stepping into Keys/Gray territory of over familiar chumminess, the Beeb still manages to create an atmosphere of members club bars, the FA itself represented somewhere in the background, ready to cough and splutter if something approaching direct criticism were to drift across somebody’s lips.

M&S survives by understanding the trends of the day, and then suiting them exactly to their audience’s needs. Their televisual comrade appears unable to do that, either not getting anything changed at all, or making too much of a leap in one go. Being bold and brave means picking pundits from outside the usual cast, allowing more controversial opinions, particularly pointed towards the FA, avoiding the ‘golf club’ presenter/pundit pairings every week to encourage different views.

Consumers flit to where they feel most comfortable. Neither institution, M&S or “MotD”, need to change at all, for loyalty will always win out. But not adapting at all took Woolworths and HMV to the sword, and if the BBC insists that even tinkering might be too much of a change, then I suspect there’s sharpening knives just around the corner.

Channel hopping, on one leg…

You could hear Charlie Brooker and Konnie Huq snapping their pencils in exhausted anger in response to BAFTA creating “Reality and Constructed Factual” as an award category some years ago. Oh well, one half of the still slightly unfathomable couple must have said to the other, there goes sharp satire towards THAT part of broadcasting, have we done sports television yet?

Perhaps ever-so-but-not-quite less now than in recent years, television is all about the specific ‘concept’ show, one specific strand left tied between two posts only just close enough together to avoid snapping, but far enough apart to allow it to disappear if viewed from a certain angle. BBC Two bloody loves a ‘concept show’; n just one genre they’ve enjoyed asking professional chefs to cook for the Queen, not-so-professional chefs to cook for each other, and complete amateurs to cook for Andi Peters and Christine Hamilton. From these ‘concepts’ ripple out variants which don’t quite work but fit the bill, sort of tribute band versions, such as ITV’s doomed attempt at making ‘Great British Menu’. (“ITV’s doomed attempt to…” could become a meme, actually, if it isn’t already.)

BBC Two has also given us an 114-year old women (give or take) sewing LIVE and current cult fave ‘Great British Bake Off’, which promises and almost always delivers UNCENSORED FLOUR SIFTING at before 9pm. Scandalous.

From the ripples out to the farthest reaches of television, the ‘concept’ show continues almost but not quite unwatched. SKY One, bless it, bought the rights to “Project Catwalk”, where a dozen gay men and two kooky women bitchersize to-and-fro in between occasional shots of LIVE SEWING. Channel 4, for reasons nobody can fathom, continue providing airtime to Middle Class Big Brother ‘Come Dine With Me’, and both Five has a strange delight with domestic and bought-in ‘concept’ programmes showing people learning to take a holiday with strangers and F-list celebs and that sort of thing. It’s a wonder, as many sane individuals ask every now and then, that they’ve not run out of shows to broadcast.

Well I think there’s a good number of programme ideas left for “Production Concept Architects”, or whatever BBC Media City types are called this week, to put inside their thought-pods. I have not been influenced by ‘Sex Box’, the Channel 4 red-triangle nostalgia fest in which two couples are interviewed having just shagged in an opaque box. (I seem to remember Vice magazine doing something similar if not identical, more than once, as nothing is new under the sun.). Laudable, Channel 4? I understand the principle behind the programme – for many viewers of sex on-line via small boxes with the volume down the only questions asked after a fuck usually consists of ‘Oh yea, you like that don’t you?’ Not entirely convinced, though, that putting documentary clothes around “The Sex Inspectors” makes ‘Sex Box’ automatically valid or credible.

Anyhoo ‘Sex Box’ has not got me thinking, as I said, about a 6-part Channel 5 ‘concept’ show where three couples are taught a different sex position every week for the chance to appear on Television X [proprietor: Mr R Desmond]. No, instead, I think BBC Two has just the right gap in its schedules to do away with cookery, learning to conduct an orchestra and giving floppy-haired nature presenters the opportunity to drop Manic Street Preachers lyrics into stock footage of an owl being torn to shreds, for the broadcast of “Writers Block”, a 28-or-so episode reality-and-constructed-factual winter warmer in which budding writers, poets and EMO-RUBY (or someone like her) must go from scrawling “No Milk Today” outside the house every morning to a novella just in time for a Christmas Day dramatisation after Brenda’s speech. Tie-in NaNoWriMo and you’ve got the BBC roping in the “Twilight” fandom who spend 20 days writing “If Only I Was……whatever the girl is called in it for the purposes of this bit Brenda?” before calling it a day because NOBODY IS GOING TO TURN ME INTO EMO RUBY or whatever.

“Writers Block” goes straight to the heart of the BBC’s argument that Auntie is all about brains and not beauty, intelligence over people having sex in a box or being shouted at by Davina. Learn to write poetry having been forced into screaming choice words at “Eggheads” – surely it’s a winning production on that alone? It’s very Radio 4, yes, but if you can tolerate “Quote Unquote” and “Poetry Please” then you can put up with 5×26 minutes every week of a pop-up restaurant owner from Hoxton speak-singing in front of John Barrowman and Sophie Ellis-Bexter, surely?

Television relies on making new things out of very old ideas; there’s nothing in “Strictly” that looks particularly different from 1970s and 1980s variety shows, for example. The ‘concept’ show has provided modern viewers with some must-see classics, only these can disappear as fast as they come. What nobody wants is constant reliance on the tired format – see “The X Factor” struggle, see “Come Dine With Me” turn into in-joke hell. If there’s something remotely different to experiment with, I say go the heck with it. Tune in to watch “Writers Block” on BBC Two, it’s the BBC Four show you always wanted in a format you’d be too British about to complain over. Sounds…..whatever the word is….I’ll do better next week, honest, don’t evict me….