BBC Three is not only still open, but thriving
Controller, BBC Three
When I joined BBC Three in April 2011 I inherited a channel which said it was "Never Afraid to Try New Things". I rather liked that mission statement and in the past three years every show we have made has tried to live up to those ideals of innovation and creativity, answering only to our young adult audience.
BBC Three is the leading young adult TV service in the world; it's more popular than Channel 4 for 16-24 year olds and from 10pm each evening it is the biggest channel for 16-34s bar none. In its rich history BBC Three has had some exceptional successes. We've rightly heard a lot about Gavin and Stacey, Little Britain and our recent comedy hits like Bad Education and The Revolution Will Be Televised but let's not forget that BBC Three is also the only channel in the UK that makes documentaries and current affairs specifically for the young adult audience. From Our War to The Call Centre via Tough Young Teachers, BBC Three tackles the most serious of subjects, but delivers them in a unique way that young adult audiences find compelling.
Of course people don't like everything we do and we get things wrong, that's inherent in trying new things, but a good BBC Three is one that embraces its capacity for failure as much as success. In the past two years the channel, which is on a fraction of the budget of the big boys, has won the Baftas for comedy and drama as well as twice for best factual programme. When you add to that the numerous RTS, channel of the year and other awards that we've won, I do find it slightly perverse that I am writing about the fact the station will cease to be a linear channel from next autumn. The BBC and its leadership are not trying to varnish this decision as being anything other than hard, but they believe within the current financial realities of the licence fee changes have to happen. What I want to stress is that BBC Three is not only still open, but thriving. We have a stellar summer and autumn ahead of us. Following on from last year's agenda-setting Mental Health season we have just launched our Crime and Punishment season, our new talent format Hair is a critical and ratings hit, and Taylor Lautner is about to land to film the next series of Cuckoo (for any non-BBC Three viewers reading he's from Twilight, then again you probably won't know what Twilight is either).
The channel will become an online-only offering from autumn 2015. We have already been trailblazing for the BBC in this area with online premieres of comedies like Bad Education, online experimental comedy pilots with our Comedy Feeds and nurturing new documentary film makers under our Fresh schemes, as well as original online drama shorts and the biggest social media following of any TV channel. To move wholly in to this area BBC Three will have to embrace its creative, risk-taking nature more than ever. BBC Three has been amazing at growing talent; it now has to redouble its efforts. It will definitely be a smaller originator than it used to be with about half of its current budget, but that money can be focused on being the best in class rather than filling a linear schedule. An important part of the proposed changes is that BBC One and BBC Two will offer consistent and prominent slots to showcase every long-form programme that the new BBC Three creates. Moving online puts BBC Three significantly ahead of where viewers currently are, that's an enormous risk, but that's part of what BBC Three is all about.
The new BBC Three is yet to be fully formed. I hope it will embrace everything that has made the existing channel first class, but if it is going to succeed it will have to listen to its audience. They are shouting loudly and clearly right now that they aren't happy. There are petitions and campaigns exactly where you'd expect them to be for a youth channel – in social media. The BBC Trust is about to engage with audiences on these proposals. I hope they do so in a way this audience can easily interact with. The real test of the success of BBC Three's next phase will be how it harnesses that engagement; listens and creates something people can feel passionate about.
The audience have to have a say in shaping what comes next, and when it is up and running they need to have a constant and evolving conversation with it, informing everything it creates.
BBC Three is nothing without the talent it works with, both on and off screen. Most young documentary makers or comedy writers do a stint on a BBC Three show – it is the training ground for British television. BBC Three has nurtured the careers of countless comedians, writers, filmmakers, journalists, producers and presenters and will continue to do so. That will need to be at the heart of what comes next.
I and the small but dedicated BBC Three team were all shocked, but it is heartening that after the news sunk in everyone talked about not only how to make this change work, but how to ensure the new BBC Three is world class. I am confident that the strength and depth of the existing brand, its talent, its suppliers, its staff and the love of its audience give it more than a fighting chance of not only surviving but truly being a pathfinder for the BBC in the next stage of how audiences consume its content.
Zai Bennett is Controller of BBC Three
This post first appeared in Media Guardian on Sunday 9 March 2014.
- Read extracts from Director-General Tony Hall's all staff email announcing the closure of BBC Three on TV.
- Read Tony's follow up post 'Why moving BBC Three online will help deliver dramas like 'Sherlock'' originally published in the Daily Mirror
- New online drama shorts are being released on BBC iPlayer. Read about them here.