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An online BBC Three could be the next Netflix

Column We're already watching IPTV anyway
Fri Mar 07 2014, 15:05

chris merriman

MAYBE IT'S PART OF THE HUMAN CONDITION that we believe any change is bad. When the news broke that BBC Three will become an online-only service, it caused a public tantrum that collected 85,000 signatures for a Save BBC3 campaign in just two days.

However we should realise that this is a shrewd and sensible move. Far from killing it, technology is saving the channel.

The BBC has a long history of using technology to offer timeshifting for specialised audiences. As long ago as 1992, the long-forgotten BBC Select channel offered programming, much of it scrambled, in the then unused overnight capacity of BBC1 and BBC2. Closed user groups used the BBC Selector box to decrypt the shows as they were sent to their video recorders to watch at a more reasonable hour.

BBC Three was already being groomed for its future on the internet long before this recent announcement. It was the first BBC channel to be fully simulcast online, and due to its target audience of young and therefore technology-savvy digital natives, it has driven the takeup of BBC iPlayer.

The channel has championed the online venue for a long time. An episode of BBC Three's Jack Whitehall sitcom Bad Education that premiered online was the fourth most watched iPlayer programme of 2013, behind only Doctor Who and Top Gear, which are two of the biggest television franchises in the world.

Outside the BBC, one only has to look at Netflix to see that IPTV can work. Netflix has single handedly killed video hire chains like Blockbuster, and in its short life it has already started to receive plaudits for its original programming, including House of Cards, Orange Is The New Black and the revived Arrested Development. In the UK, it helped make Breaking Bad a household name before it reached conventional television.

In the US, Netflix and similar services have become so central to the internet that they figure in the net neutrality crisis. The volume of data being transmitted is such that providers have started brokering deals to ensure smooth video streaming. It's worth remembering that most ISPs both here and in the US offer linear television too, so the reality of Emmy Award-winning shows originating on internet streaming services will, at the very least, make them sit up and notice.

Amazon also announced last week that Amazon Prime Instant Video, which is a lot harder to say than Lovefilm was, has bought the rights to the BBC drama Ripper Street and will shoot a new series next year.

Meanwhile, back with Auntie Beeb, anyone who has watched the same episode of Family Guy again when they really ought to go to bed will be aware that BBC Three doesn't have enough original content anyway. The night its impending death was announced, the top three programmes were a reality show about extreme hairdressing, a repeat of that evening's Eastenders and the aforementioned Seth McFarlane repeats that are frequently the top-rated shows on the channel. Arts channel BBC Four, which also is hanging by a thread, suffers from a similar problem - the actual amount of original programming appearing there is a fraction of its broadcast hours.

The BBC has already said that most programming from an online BBC Three will be shown on BBC One or Two at a later date. In other words, it will become an online proving ground for new talent among the technology literate, setting trends and allowing new content to gain a cult following before being transferred to linear broadcast channels, like it already did for Little Britain, Gavin and Stacey, Torchwood and Being Human. Do you see the pattern here?

Lest we forget, there is another option where old technology could save the day. BBC Two, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year, has had no original daytime programming since the first round of cost-cutting last year. Although unlike its digital counterparts it continues to broadcast 24 hours a day, its schedule is a messy set of repeats of lifestyle and highbrow quiz shows.

Perhaps the time has come to resurrect BBC Select using that wasted space? The BBC could automatically record scrambled versions of BBC Three and BBC Four during the day for viewing after hours. This is the method that was the basis of Freeview add-on Topup TV, which was offering pre-downloaded, on-demand content right up until it closed at the end of last year following the launch of Youview.

There you go. I've fixed the BBC. I can already see that my director-general job is in the bag.

It could all go horribly wrong, of course. This is not the first time that the BBC has had a youth brand that it has dropped like a sack of spuds. BBC Switch was a hybrid online channel and broadcasting strand much like what is being proposed for BBC Three. It lasted only three years.

All in all though, I'm tempted to side with those who say that what we're witnessing is progress. In fact my only concern is the feeling of disorientation when the TV listings jump from 'Two' to 'Four'. By the time the linear TV closure is due in Autumn 2015, many more of us will have smart TVs anyway. The BBC is using the availability of new technology to respond to changes in viewer behaviour and saving money to boot.

One day all TV will be like this. The only difference is that BBC Three is doing it ahead of the curve. Isn't that exactly what its remit says it's supposed to do? µ


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