06 Mar 2014
basac's picture

My first reaction to the news that BBC3 was being moved online was ‘that’s a terrible shame.’ There’s been some fantastic comedy in the last year on 3, including ‘Uncle’, ‘Bad Education’, ‘Bluestone 42’, ‘Revolution Will Be Televised’ and loads of others I’m sure will come to me later.

Then I thought, well at least it’s not being totally axed. As radio producer Steve Doherty pointed out, it’s bound to lead to budget cuts, but at least there’s still a budget to cut.

Also, it’s typical of the way the BBC does these things: announce an axe, wait for the protests to start, backtrack to announce it as only a cut (which is what they were probably going to do anyway), wait to see how much opposition there is to the cut, and adjust their policy accordingly.

I understand that they’re having to do this. The Coalition has not yet managed to dismantle the BBC and hand it over to the private sector in the way they have with the NHS, but further sweeping cuts will make it easier. BBC3 is a softer target in terms of  organised middle-class protest than other chunks of the corporation.

Then it struck me that this move, which appears to have come out of nowhere and seems to have been thought of at the last moment, might be the incredibly massive moment that TV companies have been waiting for pretty much since the arrival of broadband, when a big TV company makes a big move online.

Up to now, everyone has been tiptoeing around, waiting for everyone else to make the first move. BBC Online has been a huge presence for years, but always as an add-on to the programmes, never, apart from the occasional dip into online comedy shorts, a full-blown channel.

I remember around 2007, the Writers’ Guild were involved in massive negotiations with BBC, ITV and the independent companies. Everyone saw then that broadband was going to change everything, and there were huge, long discussions around what would happen if and when TV moved online.

Much of what was discussed was understandably speculative, but everyone understood that the technology would allow us to know exactly how many people saw a show. Even at that early stage, the TV companies understood that if they were going to make cuts at the production end, they would be obliged to reward succes at the other.

This was partly what the US writers’ strike of 2008 was about. As a result of that, American companies backed down and also accepted this.

Yesterday could prove to be the moment that sets everything off. The move raises so many questions, about things I know very little about. How will this affect the licence fee? Will they have detector vans to check if you’re on the internet – ‘it’s okay, he’s not watching iPlayer, he’s only downloading animal porn’?

Will there be scheduling like the other channels? Will there be lots of filler, the kind of two minute sketches that are already being made by people making programmes for BBC3? Is there the potential for it to become self-financing, and for it to live side by side with the BBC, in the way that independent companies and BBC Worldwide already do?

These are the kind of questions that I have no idea about. You’re far better off reading what people like Broadcast Magazine’s @RobinParker55 on Twitter have to say.

But there are other areas I do know about, and I worry that this will have a massive knock-on effect at the BBC, particularly in comedy. In the perfect world, BBC3 Online will live side by side with BBC Radio, and together they will develop ideas that may end up moving to BBC1 and BBC2. In the same way that radio is the perfect training ground for producers, writers and performers, BBC3 Online will also develop comedy crews, and also force writers and performers to think more visually…

…but this is not the perfect world, and with developing programmes for the future no longer a priority, someone will suffer yet more cuts.

But what happens if the channel is successful? It’ll be instantly available on iPlayer, so a great show may by word of mouth catch masses of extra hits in a couple of hours. That’ll be good news for writers and performers – I’ve had millions of YouTube hits for the Horrible Histories songs I co-wrote but have never earned a penny from them. Will YouTube have to sign up to the kind of agreements the BBC already have in place for residual payments? Now that would be an enormous shift.

If the move to online is even slightly successful, I predict lots of Channels will immediately follow – E4, More 4, maybe BBC4, ITV2 – and some new model will emerge in commercial TV where for a small payment we’ll be able to watch it all.

Like I say, this is not my specialist area. But I do think this is potentially the moment when the delivery of TV programmes to our screens changes forever. I’m a little bit excited, but I’m also aware that many more long, hard negotiations between the Writers’ Guild, the Agents and the TV Companies lie ahead.