Tony Hall reveals plans for BBC Three

Tony Hall Tony Hall: "It's not the end of BBC Three, it is the beginning of a new BBC Three"

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BBC director general Tony Hall has confirmed plans for BBC Three to be closed as a TV channel in autumn 2015, and for it to only be available on iPlayer.

He added that cutting it as a TV service would create space for a BBC One +1 service and an evening extension of CBBC to 8pm.

BBC Three will see its overall cost reduced from £90m to £25m, while some shows will go out on other channels.

Half of the channel's commissioning budget (about £30m) will be ploughed into BBC One drama programmes.

Hall said BBC Three's audiences would continue to be served, and BBC Three branding would remain on its iPlayer output.

Start Quote

In an ideal world, we would not be making this move for a few more years. Given an entirely free hand, I would make this change in about four or five years' time”

End Quote Danny Cohen Director of television

In an email to staff, the director general said: "I'm convinced that the BBC as a creative organisation will be able to reinvent a space for young people on the iPlayer that will be bold, innovative and distinctive.

"It will not just be a TV channel distributed online - it will be an opportunity to look at new forms, formats, different durations, and more individualised and interactive content."

The BBC boss also praised the BBC Three team and controller Zai Bennett for their "extraordinary track record", from Gavin & Stacey and Little Britain to Bad Education and Bluestone 42.

"You can be rightly proud of what you have achieved so far. I want you to carry on making programmes for young audiences that continue to break new ground."

BBC Three's long-form programmes will also be broadcast on BBC One or Two, most of them after 10.35pm, as part of the proposed plans.

Director of television Danny Cohen said it was a "an extremely difficult decision born out of financial necessity".

"In an ideal world," he added, "we would not be making this move for a few more years. Given an entirely free hand, I would make this change in about four or five years' time, using the years between now and then to slowly shift the balance between linear and on-demand BBC Three content.

"That would be a safer, less risky strategy."

But striking a more optimistic tone, the former BBC Three controller believed the change could be "transformational for both the BBC's relationship with young audiences and the BBC's approach to the digital age overall".

Trust approval

The proposals have been endorsed by the BBC's executive board, but the Trust, which represents the interests of the licence fee payers, will carry out a public value test before giving them their stamp of approval.

A BBC Trust spokeswoman said: "The Trust's priority will be to listen to the views of audiences as we consider proposed changes to BBC Three and other services.

"Any major changes to existing BBC services require approval from the Trust. In this case, we expect to conduct a public value test, including a public consultation, so licence fee payers will have the opportunity to have their say in the process."

Supporters of the channel, which has been the test bed for many successful comedy shows, have expressed their dismay at plans. Viewers have also started online petitions to save the station in its current form, hoping to repeat the overturn of a previous proposal to close down Radio 6 Music.

A potted history

Despite is critics and vocal detractors, BBC Three's short history points to it being a success story. It nurtured the talents of director of television Danny Cohen, who was its third controller after Julian Bellamy departed.

Stuart Murphy, who was only 33 when he became boss of the newly launched digital channel in 2003, said at the time: "Being the chance to launch BBC Three is one of the most exciting jobs in broadcasting."

It was under Cohen's watch, however, that BBC Three won digital channel of the year twice in succession, in 2010 and 2011, at the Guardian Edinburgh International TV Festival. It also won the same title in 2008. Additionally, the channel grew its share of young audiences by 58% while Cohen was at the helm.

But its birth was not totally straightforward. Its launch was delayed when then culture secretary Tessa Jowell said its remit was not distinct enough from youth entertainment rivals such as Sky One and E4. Final approval was given in September 2002.

BBC Three's winners
Matt Lucas and David Walliams Little Britain debuted on the night of BBC Three's launch

One of its biggest hits remains Little Britain, which began its television life on the channel and premiered on the night BBC Three launched on February 9. The first night line-up also included satirical animation Monkey Dust and This is Dom Joly.

Gavin & Stacey launched in 2008 and made stars of James Corden and Ruth Jones. Not longer after it launched, it also won digital programme of the year at Edinburgh. Being Human and Torchwood are other audience winners.

Our War Our War was critically acclaimed

Even though it's known for being a testing ground for new comedies, it has also aired heavy-hitting documentaries aimed at a younger audience. Our War, about young troops in Afghanistan who were filmed using helmet-mounted cameras, is arguably the most critically acclaimed, winning best factual series from Bafta in 2012. Blood, Sweat and T-shirts and Blood, Sweat and Takeaways were a series of documentaries that also won acclaim for the channel.

And some losers

But BBC Three has also been derided for programmes such as Snog Marry Avoid? and F*** Off, I'm Ginger. Early in its life, it also signed the high-profile Dom Joly for a spoof chat show that never took off. A talk show with Johnny Vaughn also failed in its first year.

The channel has often been in the firing line because of some of its misses, but controller Zai Bennett was, only recently, optimistic about its future. In an interview with Ariel in May 2011, not long after taking over as boss, he was reminded of calls to axe the channel. "Thanks to Danny's [Cohen] legacy, I believe that's no longer an issue," he remarked.

In the face of looming cuts from DQF, Bennett said he was going to "fight" for his channel, because "it does a really good job with audiences the BBC finds hard to serve".

This argument appears to be true - it is watched by about four million people a day, the equivalent of 1 in 4 adults. But only about 4% of this viewing is done via the iPlayer, which makes it harder to argue a good case for the channel moving online.

Financial blows

Its spend on content had been dropping too. The channel recently faced a 20% cut to its drama budget because Bennett wanted to protect comedy and factual from taking a hit. He conceded in a Q&A session in Salford that this was a "blow".

The content spend for the channel was around £65m in 2010/11, projected to be about £57m by 2016/17. It currently costs about £90m to run.

On Thursday, director general Tony Hall announced that moving BBC Three online will save £50m a year, but he still needs to find another £50m. If the proposal is approved by the Trust, it will be the first time in the BBC's history that it has closed a television channel, Hall said, adding that he couldn't rule out closing more programmes or services.

In August 2013, BBC Three began launching all of its scripted comedies on iPlayer. Bad Education, the Jack Whitehall sitcom, has proved to be an online hit, with its second series premiering on the catch-up service. BBC Three also launched an HD channel in December.

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