Closing time 

10 June 2011 tbs.pm/1266

As the BBC continues to wrestle with the prospect of making significant cost savings, the subject of channel closures (television or radio) has reared its head yet again, but this time the BBC wants to cut out some of that pesky red tape in the process, thereby sidestepping the previous embarrassment of royally screwing up the proposed Radio 6 Music closure.

(The Asian Network was most likely saved by a policy change as opposed to pressure from its supporters, no matter what its supporters may like to think.)

Aside from the supposed political “embarrassment factor” of the BBC closing down TV channels to save money (brought upon the government themselves with the licence fee settlement), any proposal to turn the BBC Parliament channel into an online-only ‘webcam’ could also be a significant point of disapproval with government ministers.

It’s this combined with the BBC wanting to make a highly contentious decision of some description (namely, a closure that could easily be derailed under public pressure in a similar manner as to what happened to 6 Music) that has lead to this unwelcome state of affairs.

Also bear in mind that not being able to close one or more channels and/or services would in turn lead to a significant reduction of original content and/or broadcasting hours being applied to one or more services, which is arguably even more embarrassing for this government because it would serve as a perpetual daily reminder of such a cutback.

(A closed TV channel may be initially missed but could soon be forgotten if it’s something like BBC Three.)

Nothing concrete is known as to exactly which service the BBC currently has in its sights for closure, but odds-on it won’t be BBC Three after recent comments made by its new controller Zai Bennett, namely that BBC Three’s critics “don’t watch the channel and don’t know how television works”.

As it currently stands, BBC Three’s content appears to be 90% Snog/Marry/Avoid and reruns of Doctor Who/Top Gear, with the remaining 10% being the sort of original public service content that the BBC ought be broadcasting much more often but simply can’t due to budget constraints.

Presumably the intention is to hook in attention-starved young adult viewers with repeats and reality TV before bombarding them with something original such as a documentary about Afghanistan, but as is more often the case nowadays, this tactic has been made less effective due to, yes, you’ve guessed it, budget constraints.

(BBC Three however remains a relatively popular channel with its target audience despite its limitations, which is another reason for the channel to be retained as opposed to closed.)

The claim that BBC Three’s critics “don’t know how television works” is perhaps based around a internally-held belief that having a dedicated “young person’s channel” attracts an audience which ostensibly seems to be very valuable to the whole concept of public service broadcasting and the TV licence fee in particular.

Until the BBC has comprehensively convinced outsiders that young people are well worth targeting despite often having radically different tastes compared to later in life, then the argument for retaining BBC Three suddenly becomes a fair bit weaker, not to mention the fact that young people also continue to seek out programming on mainstream channels.

All things considered, the closure of BBC Three could actually be a popular move with the general viewing public regardless of its actual merits, which means that closing BBC Three cannot really be an ultimate intention given any supposed desire to sidestep the public value test process for service closure.

(BBC Three could theoretically fail a public value test fairly easily as it stands, meaning that its closure would be relatively easy to achieve and might ultimately embarrass the BBC even further…perhaps another reason to scrap the PVT? Maybe not.)

We can also assume that the CBeebies channel is sacrosanct territory unless arguments for restricting the amount of television that very young children should watch happen to gain the upper hand, and similar arguments to BBC Three could also apply to the CBBC Channel.

Then there’s the BBC News Channel, which (a) can’t broadcast in high definition for the foreseeable future (unlike Sky News), and (b) is a significant drain on resources, but unless the audience for Sky News drops below a certain level it’s probable that the BBC will want to retain a news channel in the short term purely for competitive reasons.

We know how important the concept of marketing is to BBC management, judging from the botched radio station closure proposals and the Radio 4 Extra rebrand, therefore it’s still safe to assume that marketing is a factor that still weighs more heavily than it ordinarily should for a public service broadcaster.

Ultimately the whole concept of rolling news channels could be abolished in favour of increased online news provision – and the BBC is well placed to lead the way with such a move – but it may not feel that the time is (yet) right to make such a radical change, which could still happen in the next few years if not imminently.

Which leaves us with BBC Four; a channel which is currently earmarked for conversion into a money-saving Sky Arts clone but ultimately all those “intelligent viewers” would be able to find the same or similar content on BBC Two instead, gaining perhaps paradoxically a much greater overall audience in the process.

So there you have it: BBC Four is the most likely channel to be abolished as a cost-saving measure, but the wisdom of doing such a thing will also go hand in hand with the future of BBC Two.

Of course I could be completely wrong with all this rampant speculation and guesswork, but as it stands I cannot think of any alternative strategies that continue to follow the pattern laid down by recent rumours and deliberate ‘leaks’.