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Wednesday, March 05, 2014 

Don't save BBC Three.

Just before Christmas the Graun printed a piece by Neil Clark looking back fondly at the holiday TV schedule from 1978, the year before, in Clark's words, "Thatcherism arrived and changed everything".  In this brave old world the BBC found time to fit in six lectures from Leonard Bernstein; that well loved comedy Tea Ladies was about to start (for all of one, err, pilot episode); and the kids had Hungarian and Czechoslovakian cartoons to keep them amused.  Absent were any university educated comedians, the bastards soon to blight television screens with their "alternative" humour, and who needed them anyway when there was Michael Crawford, Ronnies Corbett and Barker, John Inman and Larry Grayson among others to entertain the nation?

Quite apart from Clark's insistence that all this was about to be smashed apart by neoliberalism, you'd have to be truly myopic to claim that the quality on offer made up for the lack of choice.  Television might not have been dumbed-down to the extent it has now, but did anyone really watch all six of those lectures from Bernstein?  Nostalgia, while great in small doses, rather obscures the reality that the shows still repeated now from decades past are in general the best those decades have to offer, at least in comedy.  There are undoubtedly some hidden gems that don't get the attention they deserve or which only lasted a series, Whoops Apocalypse one that comes to mind, yet we tend only to remember either the great or the completely rancid.  The merely bad or the average fall through the cracks in the mind.  Even the execrable fade in time; how many now can recall Curry and Chips, when plenty will know about Love Thy Neighbour?  It's also easy to forget one of the main reasons the UK was in the vanguard when it came to VCR ownership was to be able to record the good and avoid the bad, as well as to rent.

The news that the BBC is to close BBC Three reminds in a way of how spoilt we've become for choice, if not when it's come to Three for quality. It's that lack of quality that seems to have done for the channel, at least in the sense we know it, as its most popular shows will live on initally on the iPlayer, likely to then be repeated elsewhere. Rejecting calls from everyone's favourite tattooed elderly gent as well as others to merge BBC4 with 2, the reasoning seems to be that regardless of Three's relatively unique youth oriented remit, what 4 does it does very well, while the same just can't be said for its sister channel.

This has been rather proved by the struggle those seeking to defend the channel have had to point to the programmes we'll be deprived of should Tony Hall get his decision past the BBC Trust. Most are past glories, or not even that. There's no accounting for taste, but personally I'd hold Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain against the channel rather than present them as what it's capable of. There has been some magnificent original comedy produced, such as Monkey Dust, Nighty Night, Mongrels and The Revolution Will Be Televised, but for every critical or commercial hit there's been about four other stinkers. Just recently there's been Way to Go, Badults, Impractical Jokers, Cuckoo or anything featuring Jack Whitehall, while further back there was Grown Ups and Tittybangbang. Any goodwill generated by Being Human or some of the better documentaries is swiftly undone by Snog, Marry, Avoid or Don't Tell the Bride, let alone the dreck served up by Russell Kane on Live at the Electric or Nick Grimshaw with Greg James in tow.  For all the talk of how it reaches parts of the country the rest of the BBC doesn't, when the endlessly repeated Family Guy frequently turns up as one of the most watched shows it doesn't say much for the original content.

About the best case that can be made is the 16-34 demographic isn't served greatly elsewhere on the BBC away from Radio 1, and that whatever it's faults, BBC Three has established itself as the home of new comedy.  There's no reason however why the best of BBC Three can't flourish online, or why shows like TRWBT couldn't fit in on BBC2.  A general overhaul of television in general wouldn't go amiss; it wasn't that long ago BBC2 boasted of its comedy nights, and they could quickly return.  Getting rid of the deadwood such as Mock the Week and reducing the number of QI repeats would provide room for a start.  Of course, the BBC could also as Heydon Prowse suggests axe expensive copycat bilge like The Voice.  In an ideal world, moving Three online would also give E4 a boot up the backside, encouraging it to stop buying in the lamest sitcoms America has to offer and invest a little in upcoming UK talent.  It produced Misfits, after all.

In an ideal world though Three wouldn't be getting the chop at all.  This decision comes about as a direct result of the 2010 licence fee settlement that was provided to the corporation as a fait accompli, with there being little in the way of encouraging signs since that the charter renewal due in 2016 won't also be difficult.  It's also unclear exactly how much would be saved by taking Three off air and putting some of its content online; unless the plan is to let the channel quietly die, a sizeable amount of the overall £122m spent on it last year is still going to be spent rather than saved/redistributed.  If the idea was as the more cynical suspected when it came to the proposals to close 6 Music and Asian Network to generate campaigns to save them, it's dubious whether as many feel the same about Three as the fans of those far more targeted radio stations did.  Sad as it is to say, events have conspired against Three, and it's the most rational and reasonable thing to cut in the circumstances.  It still leaves TV in a far better place than it was 30 years ago, whatever the sentimentalists and revisionists would have you believe.

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