Turning Off BBC Three

The BBC has a problem. It does quite a lot of things. Most of which are very successful. It generates a lot of money from the licence fee (£3.7bn) but it spends this on a vast array of services. Unlike the Daily Mail would have you think, because of the level of consumption of these services, the value for money is generally pretty good.

It’s problem is that the Government is not really a fan. It’s freezing its income whilst loading on the organisation lots and lots more costs – £340m a year (to pay for the World Service, Monitoring and S4C). It wanted to load on even more – the cost of licence fees for the over 75s – £566m – but the BBC managed to escape that.

Like any organisation it’s hard to pay for everything you’re used to doing if the budget’s cut. Up to now the BBC has made efficiency savings to cope with these additions as well as small cuts to programme budgets – salami slicing in popular parlance.

There is clearly always more that can be done in ‘efficiency savings’ – but it’s hard. What’s much easier is to not salami slice, but to axe something. A big chunk of costs suddenly gone.

Therefore a leaked suggestion that the BBC is going to axe BBC3 – and perhaps move it online – therefore saving a huge chunk of cash. A big contribution to the £100m they want to save.

Unfortunately I don’t think this is really about money.

If there is one thing the BBC is exceptional at doing is that it works very hard to guarantee its future existence. And as a supporter, I’m very glad it’s good at it too. But let’s get real…

The BBC3 announcement is the first volley in the next licence fee settlement and a pre-cursor to warn off more government loading of services or top-slicing of the licence fee.

The reason the BBC are willing to sacrifice BBC3 is because:

  1. It demonstrates they’re willing to make tough choices
  2. If they incur more costs from the Government that they will be capable of axing more things rather than meekly just absorbing costs as they have done in the past.
  3. They will be happy to ingest the negativity of the closure because it will burnish their credentials that they’re serious and it’ll remind the Government again that licence fee payers are not happy about services closing.
  4. It will have very little political impact. The political class despise BBC3 anyway. They don’t watch it and the people annoyed by its closure don’t vote anyway. AND unlike 6Music are not made up of a moaning media elite who are able to be noisy.
  5. There will be a sop about the service continuing to exist online. This is clearly rubbish. Some shows branded BBC3 will survive on iPlayer, though they’ll also end up on 1, 2 or 4 too. Also – the purpose of killing BBC3 is to save money and 80% of its costs are content (and let’s be honest the other 20% broadcast/infrastructure costs are probably just group costs that will continue to be incurred with or without BBC3 being ‘broadcast’). In other words the savings will all come from programming, so there’s no way they’ll keep paying for the content for an online channel at anyway near the current levels.

Personally I think axing BBC Three is about tactics and not strategy. It’s a clever (licence-fee related) wheeze, but it will probably bite them on the arse.


  1. It still requires Trust approval. This will take ages and they’ll be a consultation. The story will be re-hashed over and over again – more BBC negativity in an already hostile press.
  2. There will be a ‘campaign’ of some sort from viewers. It may or may not be successful. The result will either be a climbdown (painful) or ignoring the wishes of a chunk of licence fee payers (long term not a good thing to do).
  3. The BBC has a bit of a youth problem – keeping and engaging with this audience is difficult. The BBC are sacrificing the number 1 station for 15 to 24s – I believe BBC3 does better in the demo than C4 does. This will leave R1 and 1xtra as the only services dedicated to the young. A demo that, as discussed ad infinitum, the radio stations themselves have their own problems in maintaining reach and hours with.
  4. Demographically it also does well with C2DE’s, which unsurprisingly, tend to have much more reduced internet access. So let’s assume there is an online move of some semblance off the existing channel’s content to iPlayer, well , a large proportion of the target audience won’t have the gear to receive it. Whatever happened to universal distribution?
  5. The BBC will have to come up with some ‘stuff’ to say that 12 to 30 year olds will be catered for on their other TV channels. Hello again T4 style programming on BBC2 etc. This will cost some money. So the savings won’t actually be that huge when everything’s counted.
  6. The Government want to ‘get’ the BBC. They’ve now got over a year to respond to this tactic. This is enough time to negate it or beat it.

Net result? No score draw in the licence fee battle. But viewers lose a valuable, decently watched service whilst other people carry on playing their poker match

3 thoughts on “Turning Off BBC Three”

  1. Wow. If this is a strategic poker play, it’s an exceptionally poor one. BBC Three takes a lot of risks and builds a lot of talent, but few politicians or conservative papers are likely to miss it – so it has no value as a hostage. On the contrary, the plan as outlined will undermine the BBC’s funding for a generation, as legally people can watch iPlayer and listen to radio without a licence. So what will the BBC gain by threatening to cut off its own arm here? Most likely a political encouragement to do it and not worry about filling up with more blood on the way out.

    I’m guessing the BBC had internal targets that Three hasn’t yet met in terms of producing hits big enough to compete with commercial youth-orientated channels. Putting a lower budget into a few truly remarkable online offerings could create a buzz, and bolster the argument for the licence fee to cover online, including time shifted iPlayer. But it might be more compelling to just get on and do something that good within the current plan first.

  2. More I think about it the more I think it’s a good move by the BBC. And I’m generally a fan of BBC Three. Here’s my armchair analysis…
    Ever since the days of Choice and Knowledge, there has been a genuine question about whether the BBC was overstretching itself with the number of channels it needed to produce original content for. Adding 3 + 4 means another 50hrs+ a week peaktime to fill. Even if only half of that is original content that’s still a huge amount of content to fill.
    Moving BBC Three to online only isn’t about pushing people to iPlayer, it’s about keeping the brand. BBC has generally done some good stuff with the brands it hass built up (think TOTP). I suspect BBC Three will start doing ‘takeovers’ of BBC 2 (and possibly 1); I can imagine Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings BBC2 being rebranded as ‘BBC Three on BBC2’; showing original content that had previously been available online; Thursday nights new comedy, Russell Howards’ Good News going in the Fri 10pm slot etc.
    The cost saving isn’t about axing the BBC Three content. It’s about axing the ‘filler’ content that the BBC needs to maintain a full schedule around it’s landmark programmes; the “cops with camera’s” type stuff that; the reversioning of old episodes of Coast; the bought-in series and films and the reliance on repeats (eg full series repeats of Miranda, HIGNFY, Live at the Apollo etc in primetime BBC1).
    For example, Our War should have been a BBC1 commission, and got full flagship status (genuinely can’t think of a BBC1 documentary that has stood out as much). As it was it was shown first on Three, didn’t get the audience and then when it was shown on BBC1 it didn’t get the media interest because it was a repeat from Three.
    I would much prefer the BBC to have two channels that are ‘all killer, no filler’ than having four channels which have 50% repeats and filler content.

  3. @Olly, like your ideas, but is BBC Three a brand worth saving? There have been some good shows, and the needs to keep programming for youth and to develop talent are strong, but I’m not sure as many people would think BBC Three is the iconic home of any of that. The best stuff ends up being watched more on BBC1 and 2 anyway.

    Rather than have Three keep popping up with a whiff of zombie about it, maybe it’ll be better to invest in a new, exportable cross-media brand. Or just concentrate on a few great shows and put them wherever the audience will be. Either way, I don’t think we’re going to see “Save BBC Three” build the same traction as “Save 6Music”, but we’ll see!

Comments are closed.