BBC digital stations are not there for the masses

Paddy Barwise’s report condemning BBC3 and BBC4 for catering to a ‘niche’ audience may be missing the point of digital television.

Paddy Barwise is always worth listening to on the subject of television audiences. His report on BBC3, BBC4, CBBC and CBeebies is no exception: it is vividly written and stimulating in its arguments. It also puts the cat among the pigeons, for both the BBC and the Government.

Not only does he state that BBC3 and BBC4 are poor value for money and that virtually no one watches their news programmes, he also challenges the basic thinking that underpins the BBC’s Government-endorsed strategy for digital television – namely that specialist, targeted channels are the way forward.

It doesn’t seem a daft strategy. Over the past ten years, Sky and the cable companies have brought us hundreds of channels, largely segmented by subject matter such as sport, films, news, music and children. Some segmentations go even further – history, food, golf…

Yet Barwise insists that “TV is a mass medium not a niche medium” and will remain so for years to come. As professor of marketing and management at the London Business School, he is in a position to know. He insists that the principle of “mass not niche” remains true, even in a multi-channel world in which digital TV is now in 55 per cent of UK homes.

Is he right?

“Common sense suggests that someone who watches a programme of type X is much more likely to watch many other programmes of the same type,” he says. “In this case, common sense is wrong. The near absence of programme-type loyalty has been known for more than 30 years and replicated many times.

“The evidence is clear-cut – the adult television audience is only weakly segmented, whether by programme-type preference, channel preference or demographics.”

He produces evidence that viewers who watched BBC3 one week spent only 2.8 per cent of their viewing time watching BBC3 the following week. Far more of their time was devoted to ITV1, BBC1 and the other terrestrial channels. The same was true for BBC4.

But what about children? I once stunned the audience at an Edinburgh TV Festival session on “channel branding” by revealing that when I’d asked my daughter what she was watching, she’d named a channel, not a programme – “I’m watching Nick [Nickelodeon]”.

Ah, says Barwise, “children – especially small children – are different.” His analysis showed that for viewers of CBeebies (aged between four and five) in one week, it was easily their most-watched channel the following week, with a share of 24.2 per cent. Their second favourite was Nick Jr (12.1 per cent), while three other children’s channels were in their top ten. Children, he says, are the exception.

Barwise argues that BBC3 is on a false course. “The obsession with 25- to 34-year-olds is a creative straitjacket from which BBC3 should be released,” he says. The BBC should stop thinking of BBC3 and BBC4 as niche channels and start treating them as mainstream channels, only smaller and more innovative.

He also provides a colourful analysis of the BBC’s voyage of discovery into the worlds of marketing and audiences.

“The BBC is a newcomer to modern marketing but has become adept at branding (its channel identities), promotion (Freeview) and cross-promotion (it now prioritises its messages ruthlessly),” he says. “It does, however, appear unduly obsessed with segmentation, targeting and positioning. These are powerful concepts where they work, but television is not a strongly segmented medium. It is a mass medium, not a niche medium, and the evidence is that this will continue regardless of the number of channels.”

Barwise also has a dig at the zeal with which the BBC has embraced audience segmentation.

“The BBC is full of bright, enthusiastic people,” he says. “Sometimes, it over-complicates things. A few years ago, its planning and strategy group excelled itself with its notorious document, 100 Tribes. This broke the UK population down into dozens of so-called ‘smart demographic’ segments defined by age, life-stage, gender, attitudes and interests. In a market such as television, which is weakly segmented, it is hard to see how 100 Tribes could have encouraged clear strategic thinking, intelligent resource allocation, or programme-making creativity.”

Leaving aside the over-complication of the BBC’s 100 Tribes, is he right? Do no channels have any value as discriminators? What about the music channels? Don’t their viewers spend much of the day glued to music channels? What about viewers to Asian stations? And aren’t the history channels known for their above-average ABC1 male audiences?

Even if we accept that Barwise is right about BBC3 and BBC4, and their remits are too narrowly defined, don’t they need some audience focus, rather than simply aiming for the mainstream, like BBC1 and BBC2?

I await the thoughts of his rival marketing gurus.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent on BBC News

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