Monday, August 22, 2011

Threedom

One of the greatest crime dramas you've never watched has returned to the iPlayer, capitalising on the soon to be launched second series. Amongst other programmes in the schedule around it are travelogues from Orkney, dead-pan comedy Nurse Jackie, the Proms, and an edition of Top of the Pops from 1976, featuring Thin Lizzy. Earlier this year, the channel dedicated almost an entire month to broadcasting subtitled comedy-drama from Iceland. Tomorrow, the story of Italian-language crime fiction and on Wednesday a look at submarines in cinema history. The crime drama, incidentally, is Denmark's The Killing, famous for the chunky-knit Faroese jumpers worn by lead star Sarah Lund.

All this, and as they say, so much more, is found on the BBC digital channel, BBC Four. Paid for through the licence fee, it's remit is as much souped-up BBC Two as it is SKY Arts, the Sunday Times, and BBC Radio 4's Loose Ends. If you're worried that watching a decent enough documentary on BBC Two could put you within channel-hopping distance of Jeremy Clarkson, then this is the network for you.

Or at least it might be the channel for you, for now. With the safeguarded 6Music clusterfruitcake still leaving a bitter taste in their collective mouths, the suits at Auntie Beeb are diving back onto the buffet trolly. Facts are facts, after all, and the fact is the BBC needs to find cost cuttings. And find them fast - the licence fee is guaranteed for six years, though frozen, and that all adds up to a reduction in real terms. Easy targets could cause the usual suspects to start biting, hard, and not just particularly sharp of tooth around the whole argument of the Corporation's funding. Big ticket sporting events, bigger ticket celebrity pay packets and phenomenally successful though populist prime-time entertainment shows are all easy targets for the BBC's enemies - if the network is to compete in multi-channel Britain without an ever increasing revenue stream, those enemies require rapid and effective placating.

Over on BBC Four, the cuts are already showing. Original dramas will be shrunk in number, and mostly shoved across to BBC Two. Non-English imports will struggle to survive at all. Bought-in documentaries will doubtlessly increase. Live music reduced to "Radio 3 with pictures", twice the work for presenters, less outlay for producers.

The argument from within the Corporation itself is tricky to reconcile with the long held assumption that Auntie doesn't do ratings wars. "It's your BBC!", Terry Wogan would recall in a mocking voice, turning the once often heard slogan into a punchline, often when another multi-million pound splurge is outed by the newspapers. This year, the BBC announced that their youth-orientated channel BBC Three would be given greater broadcasting hours, and the money to go with it, for the temporary transformation into BBC Olympics. Further, the channel would continue to enjoy greater amount of investment for new talent - so whilst "The Thick of It" and "Getting On" did very well for Four, it will be more "Two Pints of Lager" and "The King is Dead" for your licence fee pounds from next year.

Selling the BBC Three "youth" angle is easy for the buzz word compendiums which walk around Television Centre these days. Defending "60 Second News", the producers underline the traditional journalistic approach to slashing the events of the day into haiku. The great quote - for all the wrong reasons - is "so much TV news assumes knowledge on the viewer’s part”, but that is not how BBC Three works."

In the light of the riots in London and elsewhere, such forthcoming arguments as "Three verses Four" becomes somewhat harder to balance. In short, the BBC does a great service in providing Three, recognising that BBC One will always be more stable, family orientated, more mainstream. BBC Three has helped young writers and actors, given coverage to womens football and wheelchair ballrooom dancing (no, really) and ensures that fans of "Family Guy" and "American Dad" don't have to sit through "Newsnight" for one episode each, every week, in the graveyard slots on BBC Two.

It's the channel which people love to hate, usually for reasons of thinly veiled condescension. How unfortunate that well meaning critics could be hitting the network at the wrong time. "Down with what the youth want!" cry the establishment, newspaper columnists, the middle-class Twitter hive mind. "It's all just too vulgar"

Looked at from afar, it does appear the BBC Three formula of "shock, awe, and celebrity" sets itself apart from its broadsheet near-neighbour and all of the other BBC output. It's not too much to say "It's not exactly SKY One, is it?". On Monday, BBC Three gave you the option to watch a 'make under' programme with a Lady Gaga lookalike, followed by reruns of "Eastenders" and "Little Britain". On Wednesday there was a 'secret wedding' reality show and the film "Sliding Doors". Tomorrow, an episode of "Total Wipeout" and a rerun of "EastEnders".

But, wait. Go back a few days to "Young, Dumb, and Living Off Mum", in which spoiled teenagers are filmed cleaning youth hostels for minimum wage, as part of a "life lesson reality show". Tomorrow, Cherry Healey (no, me neither, the name sounds like a brand of ice cream), investigates body-image issues amongst young women. On the 24th, there's "Good Will Hunting". Not exactly "The Hangover II".

Despite its brash logo and 'street' outer-skin, the depth of BBC Three saves itself the bother of arguing back against the broad-brush side swipes. Yes, it is very different from other BBC output, and of course BBC Four is far closer to the Reithian manifesto. If there was only one to save, I'd choose Four, and not just because of the occasional chance to revisit "Wallander". I am older than the BBC Three target audience, but can still see that many of its exploitation programming is not exactly doing the Beeb much of a favour. Could you see why there's not a 24-hour "T4 Channel"? It just wouldn't stretch that far.

BBC Four causes Auntie a headache because of its cost and audience viewing figures. Generally, stripped of the Proms and "The Killing", Four costs more money to run, and attracts far fewer regular, loyal viewers. BBC Three is cheap, popular, and serves a part of the population well who have spent months slogan shouting (and rock throwing, shop looting) against the various establishment icons. The potential for BBC Four is huge - though what the BBC could do with Three at a time when the Government aren't exactly striking a confident pose in front of youth unrest is the opportunity to educate, entertain, and inform, Generation Internet.

Standing up for the very best of the BBC is easy. I'm a supporter of the licence fee, I watch far more BBC Four than any other channel, and I do struggle to justify the output of Three if pressed to look at its entire schedule over any given month. However, from a neutral point of view, it seems obvious why the cost-cutting is looking at taking money away from Four; the danger of perception has always shaken the suits at Television Centre. "Beeb Throws Your Licence Fee Into Subtitled Nonsense!" at a time when your teenage target audience feel alienated and ignored? If the BBC can balance the books, and in conjunction with all their executives, take an average viewer to and from BBC Four in small doses, then the possibilities could all turn out okay. It cannot be easy - the Beeb may save Four and face accusations of snobbery and detachment, or save Three and be slammed for dumbing down. The struggle at the heart is snobbery - is it somehow prejudiced against the core audience of Three to suggest they need more history, drama, and subtitled films?

In November 2009, the danger at the time was from a Conservative Party hinting that the licence fee could be "top sliced". Back then, my suggestion was to go for BBC Three for the obvious cost-saving options. Context is all - to choose one over the other will damage the Beeb and alienate millions of viewers. I would prefer the investment needed for BBC Olympic be transferred into more Sarah Lund and 70s prog rock....but perhaps that point of view is precisely the problem.