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The first ever closing of a BBC channel has been done to pave the way for the first ever tax imposed for receiving content over the Internet.
The BBC, in the person of its Director General Lord Tony Hall, says the BBC is taking difficult and necessary decisions in the face of real term cuts to its budget – i.e. a flat licence fee – i.e. a frozen public service broadcast tax.
The closure directly contradicts his statements of one year ago that he would not close any channels. That, he says, is because after due consideration, he doesn’t want to ‘salami slice’ – as the rather unappetising culinary analogy has it – across services, and would rather take this ‘brave’ decision.
Except that switching BBC3 to online doesn’t actually save much money at all. It will continue to have a £30 million budget online and, rather than pocketing the other £50 million – £60 million ‘saved’, Hall is handing £30 million to BBC1 drama. So, the actual saving is about £20 million – £30 million. That’s around a fifth of what the BBC wasted on DMI and a spit in the ocean of the BBC’s over-stretched commitments to its gold plated pension scheme.
So, why do it and court all the inevitable controversy, including the mandatory celebrity led petitions and protests? Particularly when those protesters so obviously have a point. All media are trying to reach a young demographic that is all too prone to wander off and play video games or socialise online instead of paying attention to the creative and commercial outflow. As a public service that relies on new generations continuing to consent to bestow the benevolence of the broadcast tax, the BBC more than any other organisation has a need – a duty – to reach out to the young.
Why annoy them by cutting a service they like that doesn’t cost much and – and surely this the point of the BBC – has actually come up with some truly good and lasting TV shows and TV talent? Why dump it online but preserve, for instance, BBC4, a channel where if its shows are any good they always end up on BBC2 anyway, and if they aren’t good enough for that they are either truly awful or so niche you wonder if the people actually in them even watch them. As the producer of The Office said, it is as if Hall is a rich pensioner in a golf jumper who walks into a nightclub and switches off the music.
Hall says it is all a great opportunity for BBC3 to express itself in the medium its audience loves, understands and is flocking to – Online. Flocking to in the sense that fully nine – yes nine – per cent of BBC3’s current viewers look at its shows online.
What he means is this is the only channel we can even begin to justify putting on line. And it means we can now say £30 milliom of original programming – and presumably more to come – is going straight online. I guarantee that in the weeks and months to come that is all the justification he will need to demand government lets the BBC charge the licence fee – doubtless the full £145 (far too complicated to break it down) – to iPlayer users. He has already floated the idea of charging the licence fee for iPlayer and this is his foot in that door.
To the extent that if public broadcasters are going to survive via public subsidy (rather than voluntary subscription), Hall is right; this is the road they must tread. It is just so wearisome it can’t be honest about it. The reason it isn’t is because it recognises that proposing a legally enforceable levy for content delivered over the open Internet is a turning point that puts closing a telly channel in its true perspective.