Friday 7 March 2014

What's this 'channel' thing anyway?

That decision to shift BBC3 to iPlayer is one of the most important DG Tony Hall has made.
Possibly, the most important he'll make in his time at the top of the BBC.
Why? After all, BBC3 is a niche channel - though, according to BARB's February figures, it's no small niche, outperforming Sky 1 for example.
Nor is it especially cheap - an all-up cost of around £120m. Slightly less than the cost of all Local Radio.
It's had question marks over it since its launch 11 years ago. Some were justified - should the BBC really be commissioning programmes called 'F*ck off, I'm fat/ginger/a hairy woman' many of us wondered. And what about those Eastenders repeats? Did 16-35 year olds really not watch the soap first time round on BBC1?
It was easy for the BBC's many detractors to dismiss it as Auntie's metro-yuff g-string. A 'look-at-me' come charter renewal.
So why's it such an important decision? Who cares whether yuff have to watch the shows they want on their iPads? When they want? How they want?
Pipes and stuff
It's important because it's the the first sizeable wedge the BBC has driven into the whole idea of 'channels'.
That decision a while ago to put some content on iPlayer before it went out on the 'telly' was a tentative tap on the same wedge. So was the, frankly, amazing Olympics service.
But moving a whole channel is the first big hammer blow. It won't be the last.
Tony Hall knows - and it's something the BBC has been saying to itself and to anyone who cared to listen for over two decades - that the corporation's value lies in its content, the stuff it makes, the stuff it commissions and the stuff it chooses to buy. Not in 'channels'.
Now it's true that most of us still watch our programmes live and on a 'channel'. But fewer of us and fewer of them. And the trend is in one direction only.
Who are you?
Channels made sense when there was only a handful. When we were schedulers' more or less happy prisoners. Viewers in my generation part-identified themselves by the channel their family watched most on the single TV set in their home.
Were you Blue Peter or Magpie? Grandstand or World of Sport? 
And when BBC2 came along, did you tweak your set to watch it or, like my parents, not bother because it wasn't "for people like us".
We still see vestiges of this kind of thinking now. The debate over Scandidramas - should The Bridge and The Killing have been on BBC2 or BBC4? Or those angry blasts in the TV pages during the 2012 Olympics that this or that event - usually where a Brit was heading for a medal - should have been switched to BBC1.
Yet it's hard to see what it is about Line of Duty that makes it obviously BBC2 and what it is about Shetland that makes it equally obviously BBC1. Nor where the dividing line comes between BBC2 and BBC4 commissions.
But then, these questions only matter if you believe 'channels' do.
In and out of the box
If there's anyone still alive who turns the TV onto "their" channel at six-thirty and watches it and only it 'til bedtime, they're very few in number and more likely to be my generation than younger.
As it happens, I've seen most of the BBC3 landmark programmes - Gavin and Stacey, Boosh, Good News etc etc ... but not one of them as they went out live on that channel. Nor the first time around.
The length of a programme's tail is key these days and where/when you watch is as important as you want to make it.
And we're more and more used to vertical viewing - binging on box sets. That's how I watched West Wing and Family Guy. I'm still watching House of Cards via Netflix - a box set by other means. And recorded the Scandidramas and watched them on successive days not successive weeks - a kind of home made box set. Oh, and it annoys the hell out of me that I'm having to defer to the BBC2 scheduler and wait seven days for the next episode of Line of Duty.
But that's me.
The point is, though, we all have increasingly personal viewing habits which are an increasingly poor fit with the idea of the traditional 'channel'.
The BBC3 move came earlier than Tony Hall would have liked. And under pressure to save yet another £100m or so ... which, incidentally, the move will not do.
But it's not a move he was reluctant to make in principle. Nor, if it's well managed, will it be the last.
It makes sense to tackle BBC3 first. The target audience is the one that's already most adjusted to multiple devices. The one that's most likely to be able to navigate different ways of finding the content it wants. And, of course, the one that'll grow up with those new habits as second nature.
The language, though, is limiting.
Inevitably, it's a 'channel' being downgraded to 'online'. Auntie abandoning its kids. And that leads inevitably to the fear that none of the type of content made and bought for BBC3 will now see the light of day.
Tony Hall knows that if that happens it will be a disaster. Not just for the lost talent - which is a loss of quality by other means - but because it would sink or at least delay and make more hazardous the corporation's medium-term strategy.
It's vital the new BBC3's commissioning and buying is a success and is seen to be a success - and that means holding onto the channel's identity as a fast-track to the mainstream for new talent with new ideas.
Numbers will matter too. And that's why getting iPlayer audiences measured properly and in a way that can be compared sensibly with traditional viewing is so important.
It's not impossible to foresee a time when an iPlayer like 'homepage' will be the main route into BBC programmes and content. If you've never seen the current iPlayer landing page, it's worth a visit to look at the possibilities. And, incidentally, where the 'channels' are positioned on that page.
It doesn't take much imagination to see that there are many, many more ways of bundling programmes and other content together than a handful of 'channels' none of which is as defining as some would like to argue.
And in those bundles, whether and when a programme or a series or whatever went out for the first time on TV will matter not at all.
That's where the BBC has to go. Whether it will be able to at its own pace and in its own way depends on that BBC3 wedge.
Whether it opens up the possibilities Tony Hall hopes. Or cracks the whole bloody edifice.

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