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5 March 2014

Should it really be BBC3 that gets the chop?

If approved by the BBC Trust, the decision would see BBC3 lose its on-air slot and become online-only. Does it deserve the axe?

By Caroline Crampton

At the Oxford Media Convention last week, BBC Director General Tony Hall made an important speech about the corporation’s artistic and financial future. At its heart was the conundrum facing many media organisations these days: the need to do more stuff with less money.

The BBC is implementing cuts of 20 per cent, and in his speech Hall explained that before the new budget is published next month, an extra £100m of savings needs to be found. Crucially, the DG indicated that this can’t come from “salami-slicing” existing budgets, suggesting that we should expect a whole aspect of BBC output to get the axe instead of further trimming across the board.

It was reported a fair bit in the last few days that this will come down to taking either BBC3 or BBC4 off the airwaves. Even the briefest glance down the figures reveals it’s the logical place to find lump sums to save. It therefore isn’t that surprising that we are to expect an official annoucement tomorrow that BBC3 is to lose its on-air slot and go online-only.

Is that the right call, though? A quick canvass in the office revealed that people have widely divergent views about how the BBC should save money – everything from “sell off BBCs 1 and 2 and rent them back” to “get rid of Radios 1 and 6, fullstop”. I think it’s a bit more complicated that just “young people use the internet therefore the youth-orientated programming can just be online”. It’s about intent, too, and visibility – making young people feel like they’re an equally important part of the conversation, that they aren’t valued less.

If I’m honest, I don’t watch BBC Three very often. I liked Gavin and Stacey (the channel’s most notable breakthrough series), and I enjoy Him and Her and the odd Don’t Tell the Bride. But in general, I steer clear, feeling like BBC4 is more my thing. That said, I don’t think Four should get a free pass while Three is reduced to being iPlayer-only. To choose between them is to choose between two different demographics – neither is better or more worthy, they are just different. Originally, both were intended to supplement the terrestrial BBC offering for audiences that weren’t perhaps being catered for so much on One and Two. Young people haven’t vanished just because money is tighter now.

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Some BBC3 programmes are awful (see: Snog, Marry, Avoid and documentaries presented by Stacey Dooley). But some have been brilliant – Being Human, In the Flesh, The Mighty Boosh, Torchwood and a whole host of others. At the same time, some BBC4 programmes are terrible (endless programmes where men discuss war) and others are great (anything with Lucy Worsley, say). Three and Four were a team. Together, they made space for new commissions that weren’t considered “safe” enough for the main channels.

Moving one online and leaving the other one on air makes no sense (not least from a numbering point of view). It would be better to do away with both, and pour some of the money and resources saved into braver, better new commissions for the rest of the BBC. There’s already a petition to save BBC3, and celebrities such as Matt Lucas (who owes a lot of his success to the channel) have come out in support of it. I very much doubt we’ve heard the last of this.