BBC3 uproar shows we are not such passive viewers

Axe a channel? Not on my watch. @alviseni, CC BY-NC

Connoisseurs of TV advertising may recall the commercial for Florette salad. Agricultural gangs conduct menacing stand-offs while chanting the names of their preferred leaf. “Lollo rosso!” one group taunt, “Rocket!” comes the belligerent reply.

This came to mind on reading all the coverage this week of the BBC’s plan to move BBC3 from being a broadcast channel to an online-only service, since much of this has centred on questions of channel identity and channel loyalty. Do audiences really still feel a particular TV channel can speak to their sense of identity in the contemporary media age?

Channel loyalty, brand loyalty really, is a much sought-after commodity. It is a struggle to establish and consolidate any one channel at a point when today’s television audiences, lured into remote-zapping fickleness by multichannel profusion, rarely feel securely attached to one channel as their primary televisual home. A lazy day at home might find me seeking my retro-macho fix with The Sweeney on ITV4, then snacking at the Food Network to see which diners in Pittsburgh serve the best burritos, before (should I admit this in public?) surveying the mesmerising vistas of quilted kitsch on Create & Craft.

BBC3, in the eyes of most commentators, is firmly anchored in one demographic. Youth, the young, young adults: this has been the core of the mantra. So the scheme to reposition the channel has led to cries of institutional discrimination against the teens and twenties. Digital Spy, a website with a similar constituency to BBC3, lamented that the BBC was now deeming youthful viewers to be disposable, while a Huffington Post blog about the matter was headlined “A War On The Young?”.

Him and Her.

These claims are not difficult to understand. BBC3’s founding pitch was that it sought to capture audiences in what the BBC regarded as the hard-to-reach 16-34 bracket. And its menu of comedies, reality shows, American animation, youth-angled documentaries, cult-genre dramas, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it news micro-bulletins has delivered some real successes. Two of the best BBC sitcoms of the past decade, Gavin and Stacey and Him and Her, started out on BBC3 (and the latter stayed there for its entire lifespan), while Torchwood and Being Human provoked the kind of intense devotion that all cult dramas dream of instigating.

To its defenders, BBC3 was a zone where risks could be taken. To its detractors it leaned towards the gimmicky and the cheap. Such critics recoiled from the channel’s fondness for bouncy tabloid titles (Hotter Than My Daughter, Young, Dumb and Living Off Mum – both highly entertaining series, as it happens) and its increasing reliance on the makeover and hidden camera sub-sets of reality TV.

As ever, these taste skirmishes had ideological undercurrents, with shows that targeted young women from non-powerful social sectors earning particular critical scorn. Youth, after all, is not a category that stands isolated from gender, class and ethnic identity, and BBC3 refreshingly avoided conventional BBC norms here. They opted not to make any shows called things like My Pony Club Hell, or Venom, Vivaldi and Vicious Violin Lessons, after all.

Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.

The youth angle may emphasise certain targets, but not to the point of making the programmes exclusionary. The off-the-leash teens draining Corfu of its vodka supplies may have been the foregrounded consumers of Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, but such a text clearly held appeal for those very same parents. There have been plenty of BBC3 series that this particular fiftysomething could happily enjoy.

The online reconfiguration of the channel, due to occur in autumn 2015, is being presented by the BBC hierarchy in terms of “innovation” and “diversity”, words which admittedly make the blood run cold when parroted by executives schooled in vocabularies of evangelical managerialism. But these words do have some consonance with BBC3’s original remit.

The official pitch is that programmes with young audiences in mind make sense on media platforms which young audiences already use comfortably. But there are obviously multiple drawbacks here. One might be the fact the American animations Family Guy and American Dad are streamed regularly throughout the week. They are absolute cornerstones of not just the BBC3 schedule but also its perceived image, and are not available on the iPlayer, reducing likely overall audiences considerably.

Which side are you on?

Contrasts have been made with BBC4, not immune from cuts but not so centrally in the firing line, and consequently attacked by the BBC3 lobby as stuffy, bourgeois and middle-aged – television for the comfortably-off. There is some truth in that, and this cuts quite close to home, since if there was one TV channel which might prompt me to staunch identification, taking up arms like those salad-advert warriors, it would be BBC4.

So I do understand why the defenders of BBC3 feel the need to organise and protest – an online petition to save it in its current shape has, as of this morning, gathered 120,000 signatures. And to those of us who still retain a belief in public service broadcasting it is reassuring to see audience response of such a loyal, passionate kind. Perhaps we are not all such disconnected viewers, floating woozily down the seducing stream of multi-channel ultra-choice, after all.