Danny Cohen's speech to indies on changes to BBC Three

Date: 14.03.2014     Last updated: 06.03.2015 at 10.12
This is a copy of an article first published on 14 March 2014.

Speech given by Danny Cohen, Director, BBC Television on 12 March 2014 in BBC Radio Theatre.

Thanks very much for coming today – I appreciate it.  I know that BBC Three means a lot to you all.  So I am going to talk for a bit and then answer your questions.  I’m going to be as direct and honest about this as possible.

The last few days have in many ways been pretty painful and difficult - I feel it like you do, having been so directly and intensely involved with BBC Three. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

But some of it is also really exciting and creatively energising as well as painful and I want to have a good conversation with you about that today as well.

I’m going to talk about what we are doing, why we are doing it and what happens next.

First, what are we doing?

We’re going to move BBC Three from being a TV Service to an online Service, subject to the approval of the BBC Trust.  We aim to do that in the Autumn of 2015.

Until then, BBC Three will keep doing its wonderful work on TV as normal.  We have some great new shows coming up on the Channel in the coming months – a major season on Crime and Punishment, original new Drama, and new Comedy including Siblings to sit alongside great recent Comedy hits like Bad Education, Cuckoo, Pramface and Uncle.

Then, in Autumn 2015 BBC Three will close as a linear TV Channel and in its place we will launch a bold, ambitious, innovative new version of BBC Three online.  This is where the excitement and the huge creative opportunity comes…

I think this can be transformational for both the BBC’s relationship with young audiences and the BBC’s approach to the digital age overall.  When we take BBC Three online we need to see it as a brand new Service launch.  It will be the biggest change to BBC Television’s portfolio in over a decade.  It is an opportunity for both radical thinking and unprecedented collaboration across the creative community and inside the BBC.

The new version of BBC Three online will continue to have the things we all cherish most about the Service – innovative Comedy, unrivalled Current Affairs for young people, incisive and entertaining factual, and original Entertainment.

I want and expect us to keep making shows for young audiences of the quality of Our War, the public service value of BBC Three’s recent season on mental health and its political engagement through Free Speech…

We will keep producing programmes of the comic brilliance of Little Britain, Gavin and Stacey and Bad Education, of the entertainment value of Russell Howard’s Good News and Backchat.

And we will continue to build on the Current Affairs’ pedigree of the Channel’s work that has taken young people on journeys to Afghanistan, the Congo, India, South Africa – as well as exploring the tough challenges for young people here in the UK.

BBC Three is the only UK Service to provide this kind of serious Current Affairs for young people. It is something the BBC is immensely proud of, and something we will continue to do.

So when the Channel moves online there will continue to be a wonderful and creative job to do for the people who make, commission, market, promote and support the production of the programmes on BBC Three that audiences have been delighted and stimulated by over the last decade.

What is changing is the way we deliver this content to our audiences.

This will be a wonderful creative opportunity to do new things in new ways. 

This is the way we need to think about BBC Three in the future:

BBC Three content



BBC Three will continue to do all the things we love but it will also have the freedom to break traditional shackles.  It will not just be a TV Channel distributed online. It will join up all of these platforms above in new and innovative ways.

There is a huge creativity opportunity here to create new formats, new programme lengths and to reach young audiences in an ever growing number of ways.

Will we still want to make all of our Current Affairs’ documentaries at 60 minutes in the age of Vice and YouTube?  Will we find that contemporary documentary and formats work much better at 40 or 45 minutes than 58?

What will we learn about the length we want to make each episode of our Dramas or Comedies, perhaps learning from new market players like Netflix and Amazon?

Freed from the shackles of conventional TV scheduling we will begin to make our programmes for young audiences at a range of lengths and in consequently different shapes and styles.  We will produce more short-form as young audience habits change and we will talk in great detail with young people to make sure we shape the offer in ways that they will love.

We will also take the opportunity to go cross-platform in a way no other major broadcast channel has been able to.

We will form an ever closer partnership with Radio 1, joining up and sharing our audiences in ways that would not have been otherwise possible.

We will deliver our content for young audiences online via iPlayer but also on new and partner platforms like Facebook, YouTube, twitter, Instagram and new distribution platforms still just emerging … and by doing so we will make sure our content is where our audience are, whenever they want it.

In this sense, BBC Three will be the spearhead for a new age of digital change for the BBC.  It will be the pathfinder as we learn how audience behaviour is changing in the coming years – and it will allow the BBC to be ready for the next waves of disruptive digital change.

We will also make sure that every piece of long-form BBC Three content finds a home on linear television.

We do not want our content for young audiences to be available only to those with a broadband connection – and we don’t want anyone to miss out on the great new programmes we will be producing.

So every long-form BBC Three programme will be shown on either BBC One or BBC Two, with most playing at 10.35pm or a little later on BBC One.

Playing them on BBC One will massively increase the reach of these programmes for young audiences.  And it will guarantee that we do not risk creating a ‘haves and have nots’, a digital divide when it comes to enjoying what we are making for the public.

It will also make BBC Three an even more exciting place to be for on-screen talent. Their shows will be shown on BBC Three’s new home on iPlayer online but they will also know they will get a showing on the Nation’s biggest television channel, BBC One.

So why are we doing this?

There is undoubtedly a strong counter-argument to this change and I want to address it directly and honestly with you.

BBC Three is the most successful public service channel for young people in the world.

In its broadcast TV hours it reaches more young people than E4 and ITV2.

It is now a bigger channel for 16-24’s than Channel 4.

It has won countless Awards, Channel of the Year, and made programmes that I and everyone who has been involved with the Channel has been personally very proud of.

It has launched and developed the careers of many of the UK’s biggest stars, on and off screen.

Young audiences are also one of the areas that we know we are under-serving.

So why would we add to this challenge?

The honest answer to this is that the BBC has less money than it used to but it is trying to do ever more.  We have kept stretching the elastic ever further and we’ve decided that we can’t keep stretching it.

Last autumn, Tony Hall set out a new strategy for the BBC.  He talked about the need to invest heavily in BBC One and Drama to keep up with growing global competition.

He talked about the need for new investment in iPlayer to ensure it remains the very best on-demand TV service in the world.  And he talked about the need to re-invent our relationship with audiences in this digital age, making it more personal, more direct, more responsive.

And we are equally determined to maintain BBC One as the world’s most creatively vibrant mainstream channel. It’s the Channel that audiences tell us they value most.

This too means more investment than we are currently able to make, even before we begin to invest in BBC Two to ensure that it remains a Channel of significant scale in our fragmented digital landscape.

All of this costs money.

The story of content investment in BBC Three over the last few years is also relevant here.  It launched with a budget of over £100 million pounds. When I ran it I faced a budget cut that took the money down to £70 million.

By 2016 based on the current plan, we will be down to a budget of around £53 million – around half of what it started with.

Zai Bennett, the BBC Three team and everyone who makes content for it are doing an astonishing job of keeping the Channel so creatively buoyant and successful in these straitened times.  But they are doing so on an ever-diminishing budget and it has made us think hard about how we might do things differently in the future.

So when you add this fact together with the investment demands of the new strategy and the fact that the BBC has had to find £245 million a year to fund the World Service as part of £350 million of additional funding responsibilities we have had to take on, the truth is that we have a financial challenge of the like we have never had before at the BBC.

Talking to colleagues in Business and Finance who have been at the BBC a long time, they are very clear with me: in the past the BBC did indeed have the money to do everything it wanted to – and more.  Now we simply don’t – and for me that means we are in an age of hard choices and radical, perhaps risky solutions.

So over the last few months, we’ve been talking in great detail about what we do about this.

At the heart of this discussion, there has been one thing I’ve been very clear on.  I do not want us to take on another round of major cuts to programme budgets to find the money we need.

I think that over the last decade or so when the BBC has had to find savings, BBC Management has essentially pushed the problem down on to producers with smaller budgets and longer working hours.

Big decisions, big choices have been avoided.

I don’t want to do that again.

I think it would put quality at risk by starting another major round of budget cuts and frankly I don’t think the people that work with and for the BBC will tolerate it.

They have done enough. I feel it is time for leaders in the BBC to make some choices.

That is why we are making this decision on BBC Three now.

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, 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 we don’t have the choice to wait and do it like that if we are going to make the investment we need in to BBC One, in to Drama, in to the iPlayer, in to personalisation for our audiences – in our future.

We don’t have the choice if we are determined to maintain BBC One and BBC Two as extraordinary Channels of quality and scale.

So it is a hard and painful choice in this sense but one I think we should make rather than cut budgets across the board ever more over the next few years.

I don’t want to lead BBC Television in a way that avoids the hard choices and makes the budget challenges ones that programme-makers rather than senior BBC Executives have to find all the answers to.

I’m sure you have lots of questions and I will come to those very soon, but I thought I would also raise directly some of the ones that may, very understandably be at the forefront of people’s minds.

First of all, if we are going to take a Service online to save money, why BBC Four and not BBC Three? It is after all, younger audiences that we are under-serving?

I think this is a fair question, and one we have been talking about a lot.

There  has been an understandable theme in the feedback we’ve had that this move is unfair on young people, that they are being singled out and we are denying them a voice.

I do understand that – and I think it is one of the areas we are going to have to work really hard on across the whole of the BBC in the coming months and years.

Tony Hall and I have talked in detail about this - and we agree that everyone at the BBC now has an even greater commitment than ever to ensure their work and their Services reaches young audiences.

But the main reason we are starting with BBC Three is because we know that young audiences are spending more and more of their time online - and we think we can migrate them across to an online channel more successfully at this point than we could with BBC Four.

Look at this graphic that shows where TV now sits in terms of importance with young people:

Showing mobile and the internet are more important to young people than their TV’s

Showing mobile and the internet are more important to young people than their TV’s

TV still really matters to young audiences – they watch masses of it.

But their relationship with technology is changing.

So we see this as a strategic choice that will give us the best chance of success – moving the audience online who are most likely to absorb the changes most naturally.  Having said that, I can’t guarantee what will happen with BBC Four in the future.

If, for example, the BBC was to receive a cut in its Licence Fee in 2016-17, we will need to look at BBC Four next in order to ensure we maintain our quality and budget levels on BBC One, BBC Two and the iPlayer.

Another question you might justifiably ask is whether we are really basing this decision on the reality of how young people are actually consuming TV.

It is a fact that over 90% of TV viewing by 16-34’s is still via a television.

Even with our youngest service, only a small percentage of viewing is via iPlayer.

So is making this change too far ahead over the market?

I think the honest answer to this is yes - it is.

As I said, in an ideal world I would make this change in four or five years’ time and migrate audiences to more online viewing in these years.

But we don’t have this choice for the reasons I’ve laid out: protecting BBC One and BBC Two, investing in Drama and the iPlayer and avoiding asking staff to bear the working brunt of another heavy programme of cuts.

I think this means that in the short and perhaps medium terms, we will very likely lose some time spent by young people with the BBC.

I think we should expect that as part of this radical change. 

But our hope and ambition in the long-term is that by going early we will position ourselves better than any of our broadcast competitors for the viewing habits and lifestyles of the future.

This is a similar choice to the one the BBC had in the 90’s. We took a lot of money out of conventional TV content and invested in BBC Online. There was a lot of criticism at the time that the BBC was taking money out of TV content to invest in online services.

It was viewed as mad by some at the time, but we can now, twenty years on, see what an important decision that was.

Again, in the early part of this century, we took money out of current Services to fund the development of the iPlayer and I am really glad that this decision was made too.

We have also been thinking hard about how we compensate for some short or medium term young audience losses as a result of this move – and we have a number of strategic moves planned.

  1. We will show all BBC Three long-form content on BBC One, and sometimes BBC Two.
  2. We will treat the move of BBC Three to an online Service as a Channel Launch with its attendant marketing push. We will be asking the entire BBC to get behind it and make it a huge moment for the Corporation.
  3. We will steer the additional investment we are going to make in BBC One Drama to content that will appeal to young audiences.
  4. We also want to create a +1 for BBC One, subject to Trust approval. We believe this will make a significant difference to viewing levels, particularly as all the research shows that +1 Channels skew younger.

This is how we would like to propose to The Trust that we use BBC Three’s linear spectrum when we make this move.

BBC Three spectrum shared between CBBC and BBC One+1

BBC Three spectrum shared between CBBC and BBC One+1

As you may know, BBC Three currently shares a Channel space with CBBC – CBBC is on from early in the morning until 7pm and then BBC Three takes over the slot from that time until the middle of the night.

We are going to propose that CBBC actually gets an extension of its hours to 8pm  something that parents have wanted us to do for a long time.

At 8pm, the spectrum would then be used for a BBC One+1 Channel, giving audiences a second window to view the Channel’s programmes from The One Show onwards.

We know that audiences really value +1 Channels. We are not planning to open them for all of our Channels but we think offering a +1 for BBC One will be really well received and will help boost young audiences.

One final question from me that you may be wondering: how does this save money?

The actual cost of distribution of a linear Channel is not huge. We will save some money here but not a massive amount.  The saving comes from being released from the constraints of a linear schedule.

BBC Three has slots to fill seven days a week from 7pm until about 4am.

An online Service does not have to do that.

We will be able to make less and do so at different, less restrictive programme lengths.

So overall we will spend about £30 million a year on this new Service rather than £55 million.

When we combine this with the money we are already planning to invest in iPlayer, we are able to save over £45-50 million a year in BBC Television by making this single move.

It has risks, it is difficult, but I think it is a better and more exciting move in challenging times than coming to you today to say budgets are shrinking and quality is going to be put at risk.

So, to draw it all together:

This is the biggest move the BBC has made in over a decade.

We will now go on a transformative journey that will re-invent the BBC’s relationship with young people.

There are wonderful and innovative creative opportunities made possible by this and we need to treat this as a Channel launch and make sure it is an extraordinary creative effort, based on collaboration right across the BBC.

This is risky. We may lose some young audience share in the opening period of the change.

But we believe in the longer term that this will place the BBC in prime position to succeed as digital disruption continues – and we have decided that we want to lead by making big choices rather than the kind of salami-slicing that we believe should end at the BBC.

So I will end with an appeal to you all: this has been a difficult moment but please come with us on the creative journey to re-invent BBC Three and make it a great success.

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