Choice Gets Going
1 Mar 2003 0 comments. tbs.pm/1895
Just after 2.15am in the early hours of Sunday 9th February 2003, BBC Choice died. It had spent the previous seven hours showing the same looped fifteen-minute promotional film for its successor, BBC Three.
There wasn’t even a final ident and a “goodbye” message – the end of the sequence simply faded into a “BBC Three gets going at 7pm” caption. The only real recognition of the now dead channel was the continuation of the ever-so-groovy way of saying when the station would next be on air.
Choice was a rather unloved channel for most of its four and a half years of existence. It began and ended in bizarre circumstances.
The station launched at midday on 23rd September 1998 to an audience of – well, very few people indeed. The first digital platform to launch was Sky Digital on 1st October, and this gave the general public their first opportunity to watch the new channel (aside from brief internet broadcasts).
The BBC claimed that the early start was so that they themselves could ensure that everything was working perfectly. In those early days, the channel’s budget was £20m, which, put against BBC One’s £900m, was rather pitiful.
The initial plan for the channel was to accompany BBC One and Two by repeating the best programmes and providing accompanying series. This was reflected in the idents, which centred upon the theme of “groups of three”, such as “Punch” (a boxing glove, the drink and Judy’s puppet partner).
The channel tended to operate from around 5pm every afternoon, beginning with a variety of programmes including Chill on Choice, Backstage, and 110%. There were regional variations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
From November that year a new weekend strand called CBBC Choice began, with programmes such as Re-Peter and Live and Kicking Replay. The section even had its own idents, continuing the families of three theme in the yellow and black style that CBBC had at the time.
The channel was given a fair amount of publicity in its early days. An oft-repeated trailer featured Pauline Quirke trailing the channel as “BBC Quirke” but being told at the end that it was to be called “BBC Choice” instead set the ground for the channel.
In addition a general BBC Digital trailer featuring a variety of BBC stars promoted the new station. Cynics said that it was a glorified repeats network, but those few who saw BBC Choice in its early life maintain that it was quite innovative.
For a while, BBC Choice was synonymous with digital television. The intense promotion in its early days led to the likes of Sky and On Digital promoting it as one of the main channels we could look forward to if we signed up to them. But the channel’s current format was not to last.
With the launch of digital, BBC News 24 came to greater prominence, and in June 1999 BBC Knowledge was added to the fold.
Choice’s “family of three” strategy was beginning to look increasingly out of place as the BBC wanted to market a family of five or six. Greg Dyke’s arrival at the BBC also radically changed John Birt’s digital vision.
Initially Knowledge, Choice and even to an extent News 24 had all been varied networks, each showing a variety of programming. All that was to change.
From 3 April 2000 both Knowledge and Choice became more focussed and direct about the audience they were serving. Knowledge’s children’s programming was largely dropped and each day was themed around a particular style of programming.
But the more profound implications were on BBC Choice, which abandoned many of its original programmes such as Backstage, and moved towards opening every night at 7pm. This was to follow thirteen hours of children’s programming, in the newly-renamed CBBC on Choice.
The new BBC Choice was aimed at younger people, with most of the early part of the schedules being made up of fifteen-minute programmes under the banner of “Refreshing TV” or “Micro TV”.
Whilst many of these – on a variety of subjects from cocktails to past-it TV stars – had merit, they completely alienated the original BBC Choice audience, who had been used to new content most nights (if in an inexpensive form like Backstage). Now the same programmes seemed to be repeated every night.
The saving grace of the new-style BBC Choice was to arrive at the end of May 2000. Liquid News evolved out of News 24’s Zero 30, and the programme is heavily documented elsewhere on the Transdiffusion Network.
However, it restored live output to the Choice schedules, and presenter Christopher Price brought a breath of fresh air to an otherwise tired channel. Since the relaunch the only ident to be used from the original set was the “heart” version, and from July that was replaced by a remixed version.
It really summed up the new BBC Choice – a re-hash of the original. The three hearts were badly cut out of the original ident, superimposed over a garish fluorescent background and interchanged to weak whooshy noises.
However, anyone who had actually latched onto the new format didn’t have long to savour it. In August 2000 Greg Dyke announced that the BBC would seek to replace BBC Choice as soon as possible with BBC Three, which would be a continuation of the “youth” aspect of the new BBC Choice.
This announcement effectively signed a death warrant on Choice, and it marked the beginning of over two years of the channel being on death row, awaiting the government to approve BBC Three. Whilst, of course, Three would have the same staff as Choice, it was difficult for the BBC to enthuse about something that they had already confirmed they wanted to end.
But the government refused to approve the BBC’s digital plans, which also advocated BBC4, two children’s channels and five digital radio stations, with any urgent haste.
They were postponed again, again and again, not helped by the general election of June 2001 and a change of culture secretary. The government was also under enormous pressure from the likes of E4, Sky One and Nickelodeon not to approve the plans.
The government’s decision eventually became apparent on 13 September that year, and whilst most of the new digital output was given the green light, BBC Three was refused, due to being “indistinctive” from the offerings already existing.
This decision clearly shocked the BBC, and it became apparent that they had expected for the new channel to be on air soon after the announcement. In July that year 60 Seconds began – the new one-minute news bulletin that had been proposed for BBC Three, and three bouncing cubes replaced the horrendous idents from the year before.
The building blocks (quite literally) were in place for the new channel, but it was not allowed to launch until the BBC re-submitted its plans. Meanwhile, the poor, unloved BBC Choice plodded on.
There were truly inspired programmes in some areas – particularly The Recommended Daily Allowance, which ran for two series on a meagre budget with zero publicity and managed to gain a cult following simply because it was such a hit-and-miss show.
The RDA was really that last of the “no-one’s watching” era of BBC Choice programmes – even though viewing figures never really improved, the channel began to take itself more seriously.
A running joke in the final days of The RDA was that Johnny Vaughan had been signed up to BBC Choice to present a nightly satirical comedy show – exactly The RDA’s brief, so it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be recommissioned.
Johnny Vaughan Tonight eventually proved to be a decent programme, but felt so much more mainstream and safe that what it replaced.
From October 2001 BBC Choice took on a lot of programming that had clearly been earmarked for BBC Three – new productions such as Closure, and premiers of Shooting Stars, which they had clearly been hoping to launch the channel with.
The new submission for the channel raised the target age range to 25-34 and increased the amount of factual and arts programming, with a nightly fifteen minute news programme. Once again, the government proved extremely slow in reaching a decision on the plans. During this time, BBC Choice and Three were dealt another blow.
Christopher Price, arguably the face of BBC Choice, died in April 2002. Liquid News had been a central part of the BBC Three proposal and his death threw the plans into chaos once again. The programme experimented with guest presenters before finally relaunching with Claudia Winkleman and Colin Paterson at the helm on in October that year.
But by this time the BBC had finally achieved what it had wanted – BBC Three was given the go ahead in September, but with a stringent set of public service conditions.
So BBC Choice – the channel that had started out with so much promise but eventually was left to fester with the promise of something better to come – was finally consigned to the scrap heap.
With a launch date of 9 February announced, the clock was ticking. Most of the autumn’s schedule was taken up by Fame Academy coverage, and following this from Christmas onwards the channel became simply a repeats station.
Aside from Liquid News and 60 Seconds, the channel began to work its way through its back catalogue of comedy, music and even drama such as 24. It was clear that effort was being piled into BBC Three during this time but it was an undignified end for a channel that promised so much.
From just before Christmas the “blocks” idents were replaced with “under construction” idents, which showed two workmen (initially) tearing down the old BBC Choice ident and beginning work on a giant construction.
Over the weeks this gradually announced how many weeks there were to go, and then days. During Choice’s last week both Liquid News and 60 Seconds both went off air, and gradually the schedule became more and more filled with BBC Three preview films.
As already detailed BBC Choice closed with an entire night of previews, and the final ident – somewhat appropriately featuring the “BBC CHOICE” logo being knocked out of position by a builder’s cup of coffee – aired just after 1am, with the announcer promising to flick the switch soon. And that was it.
It’s easy to get sentimental, but it’s a shame that a channel that embodies the BBC’s initial boldness with experimenting on digital television was neglected for so much of its lifetime, always promising so much more to come on Three and ending up having to deliver a watered down version itself.
The channel at close was unrecognisable from the one that launched four and a half years earlier – the only surviving programme from launch was EastEnders Revealed, which continues on BBC Three.
It’s to be hoped that Choice won’t be remembered for endless Weakest Link and Robot Wars repeats. There were superb programmes – from the original Liquid News through to The RDA and Backstage, programmes that took Choice’s status as a very small TV station and used it to their advantage creating innovative television.
It remains to be seen whether BBC Three can become what BBC Choice sadly never managed – a big success.