Channel 4’s just done a handbrake turn on the subject of BBC3. Until last week, we all understood that Channel 4 was in favour of BBC3, which is meant to be the new, improved version of BBC Choice, the BBC’s digital channel for “younger adult” audiences. Channel 4’s last chief executive, Michael Jackson, had publicly welcomed the corporation’s plans for new digital channels while its next one – Mark Thompson – actually devised the BBC3 proposal, as the BBC’s director of television.
Indeed, Thompson’s last public act before signing his Channel 4 contract was to host a news conference explaining why the second BBC3 submission was a better one than the first, which the culture secretary Tessa Jowell had rejected as not being distinctive enough.
Yet before he has even got his feet through the Channel 4 office door, let alone under his new desk, the view has changed. Now, it seems, the new improved BBC3 poses a direct and destabilising threat to Channel 4 and its fledgling digital pay-channel E4, and the company has written to Jowell to say so.
Thompson is on “gardening leave” from the BBC until March. So if he was not at the wheel for the U-turn, who was? Step forward Tim Gardam, Channel 4’s director of programmes, and his co-driver David Scott, the channel’s acting chief executive. Announcing the about-turn at last week’s Broadcast conference on public service broadcasting, Gardam acknowledged that Channel 4’s position had altered.
“When BBC3 was first proposed, Channel 4 gave it qualified support,” he said. Some of us thought Jackson had been a bit warmer than that, as the BBC’s spin-doctors helpfully pointed out in their response. In the Independent last August, Jackson wrote: “The BBC’s proposed investment in…BBC3 can only help to raise the quality and increase the range of digital television.”
As it happened, at that stage Jowell didn’t agree. She said it was too similar to what other channels were offering, including E4, MTV and Bravo – despite the fact that none of the commercial channels had made much objection.
So what has changed to make Channel 4 suddenly unhappy? And how are Jowell and her civil servants likely to respond?
In its new BBC3 submission, the BBC has beefed up the news, current affairs, education, music and arts content. These will now account for about 15 per cent of hours broadcast and more than a third of programmes made for the channel. It has also promised that 20 per cent of programming will have an interactive element, and a raft of new talent initiatives.
The BBC now describes BBC3 as an inherently multicultural, interactive channel, committed to engaging a demanding audience with high quality, distinctive, innovative programming in every genre – a statement which surely ticks every box that the most public service-oriented regulator and civil servant could devise.
You might have thought that a more public service, less entertainment-oriented proposal would appeal more to Channel 4 than one which seemed designed to attract younger audiences at any cost. But it seems that Gardam and Scott have now read the proposal in more detail (or that the BBC has fleshed out its proposals for the Culture Department) and they don’t like what they see.
“The application includes an independent assessment of the impact of BBC3, which makes clear BBC3 is setting out to undermine the ability of Channel 4 to raise the revenue to fund its public service remit,” Gardam told the conference. “It says it aims to take five per cent of Channel 4’s audience in multichannel homes and 15 per cent of E4 viewers.
“If the BBC’s own analysis is correct, it aims to take tens of millions of pounds in advertising revenue, which Channel 4 spends on its public service broadcasting. Far from being ‘a major injection of money into the British TV economy’, its impact is likely to reduce programme budgets for other commercial broadcasters.”
The Channel 4 submission to the Culture Department goes further. Even after the changes, it says, “the proportion of the BBC3 schedule devoted to news, education and factual programming is minimal” and duplicates what Channel 4 does, rather than complements it.”
It says the BBC’s proposed budget of £97m for BBC3, plus a share of the £20m digital marketing budget, is “out of all proportion” to what existing digital services and other BBC digital channels get, and is “greater than the other three new BBC channels combined”.
Above all, Channel 4 questions the notion that BBC3 will help increase the take-up of digital TV: “The BBC3 target audience already has a high-take-up of digital services and is better served by existing digital channels than other sections of the population.”
The BBC naturally rejects Channel 4’s arguments. “We don’t believe BBC3 will take revenues and thereby damage investment by the commercial sector in UK production” says a spokeswoman. “Indeed we think BBC3’s success will encourage more investment by the commercial sector in UK programmes.”
Will Jowell be influenced by Channel 4’s arguments? Not necessarily. She was unimpressed by a much more ferocious lobbying campaign against the BBC’s proposed children’s channels and those go on the air next week. However, her sympathies were against BBC3 from the start, and Channel 4’s U-turn won’t help BBC3’s cause one bit.
Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News