All of the People, Some of the Time

Steve Williams on BBC3 programming

First published March 2003

Typically, BBC3 is on air between 7pm and 4am each day – a sensible enough decision, given that most of its target audience is in work during the day, and with a budget that’s inevitably much smaller than BBC1 and BBC2, it makes sense to limit the number of hours. With the same controller, and filling the same place in the EPG, it’s unsurprising that a number of programmes have been carried over from BBC Choice.

Yet the two channels are very different – the government conditions imposed means that there can’t be as much of a reliance on repeats from BBC1 and BBC2 as on Choice, and nor can they fill it full of imports (indeed, more or less the only imports at the moment are episodes of 24 and Taken before BBC2, and films on Wednesday evenings). There’s also a commitment to factual programming that Choice didn’t have.

Weeknights on BBC3, however, start in the same way as BBC Choice with Liquid News. Broadcast at 7pm, six nights a week, the show has managed to survive the death of its original host Christopher Price last year, and current presenters Colin Paterson and Claudia Winkleman fill his shoes admirably. The show doesn’t seem that appealing on paper – simply a rundown of the day’s showbiz news – but it does so with enough wit and charm to make it worth tuning in. The programme’s actually produced by BBC News, and so it has proper newsgathering skills behind it, but it’s aware that what they’re talking about isn’t really that important and so it’s not afraid for a bit of silliness for the sake of it. Other attempts at a showbiz news show (notably five’s Exclusive, which like Liquid News ran daily in the channel’s early days, and to a lesser extent RI:SE) have failed, partly because they’ve simply regurgitated electronic press kits that you can see everywhere else. Liquid News works through a healthy disrespect for the world of showbiz, and some of the sharpest scripts on telly.

At the moment Liquid News is followed by Liquid Profiles, 15-minute celebrity interviews that are also repeated in extended form after midnight. This takes us up to 7.45pm and The News Show. This 15-minute programme is an attempt to bring something of the style of Radio 1′s Newsbeat to the screen, being a pacey, breathless look at the day’s events tailored to a young, media-savvy audience, and fronted by Five Live’s Julian Worricker. It manages to keep to the rest of the BBC news agenda well enough, and does so without filling the screen with overcomplicated graphics or being concerned with aesthetics over journalism – indeed established BBC correspondents appear in the reports. Yet it all does seem a little rushed, with Worricker and his co-hosts unable to exhibit much in the way of personality, and some items not getting the time they really need. As with most attempts to reinvent the news bulletin, though, it’s hard to see viewers tuning in purposely to see it – most viewers will probably only watch it if it’s between two programmes they want to see.

The other current affairs output includes BBC3′s documentary strand The Third Degree. This consists of long-form reports on a number of topical subjects – the first two were an investigation into the diamond trade, and one reporter who had spent time in a young offender’s institution meeting again those he was there with to see what happened to their lives. Again it’s good to see BBC3 try these things out, and again the journalism is solid, but once more it all depends on whether the audience will actually want to watch it. One laudable aspect, though, is that the programme doesn’t feel the need to make a song and dance about the fact that all the presenters are black.

The Liquid brand also spins off into the regular series Liquid Assets, which are long-form investigations into the bank balances of the stars. This is probably the quintessential BBC3 programme – a documentary made more palatable by the inclusion of celebrities. It’s unfortunate, though, that the series appears just a few weeks after Sky One’s Spend It Like … series, which is more or less the same thing.

More distinctive is Celebdaq, a series based on the website that allows members of the public to buy shares in celebrities and watch their values rise and fall depending on the amount of column inches they warrant. “It teaches people about the stock market”, claimed BBC3 while explaining why it counts as a documentary. It’s said that thousands of people are now playing the game each week, and it’s likely to prove addictive – the show itself, alas, needs a bit of work to actually get people to tune in, though presenter Patrick O’Connell is at least amusingly neurotic and ill-at-ease with live television.

It’s certainly more fun than BBC3′s other regular look into the world of celebrity – Vinnie, a 20-week fly-on-the-wall series spending a year with Vinnie Jones, which is about as bad as it sounds. Meanwhile, Fatboy Slim: Musical Hooligan follows Norman Cook around, though unfortunately constant appearances by Zoë Ball have made the series seem somewhat out of date. These sort of shows made up a lot of the channel’s first week, with Robbie Williams and the Appletons also getting their own documentaries – both were authorised and made with the stars’ permission, and if this meant they were a bit toothless, they did at least get the celebrities on side with BBC3.

When celebrities aren’t the subject of BBC3′s documentaries, they’re presenting them. Coming soon we’ve got celebrity loverat James Gooding fronting a show on contemporary art, but for now former Elastica signer Justine Frischmann presents Dreamspaces, the architecture magazine programme. Cynicism aside, though, this is a good series – it’s well filmed and the reports are, on the whole, very interesting. This is the sort of thing BBC3 should be doing; proper documentary programming on a subject that’s not catered for enough on television. Other factual programming includes Underground, an awards show with Trevor Nelson and a panel of movers and shakers (including Lauren Laverne, Miranda Sawyer and Phill Jupitus, among others) choosing people who they think are going to be big names in art and culture in the future. Meanwhile the BBC’s Hitting Home season was marked on BBC3 with a documentary about abusive partners.

Aside from the launch night shows, BBC3′s other big comedy hope is Swiss Toni – Charlie Higson’s Fast Show character spinning off into his own sitcom. This is about as traditional a sitcom as you can get, with all the action filmed on a couple of cardboard sets, and while it’s perhaps laudable that it aims to do nothing but make people laugh, it doesn’t really work, coming over as fairly clichéd and predictable. The jokes seem to fall flat and the plotting is all over the place – which perhaps shows that the character can only really work in small doses.

BBC3 also offers the third series of Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps before BBC2 viewers get to see it later in the year, and again this isn’t a classic sitcom by any means. Occasionally this can come up with some funny lines, but often doesn’t really know where it’s going (the last series tried to include dramatic moments, which it is woefully unsuited to) and the acting is very uneven. The new run, though, has been extended and is now written by a team of writers, which could at least take some of the strain off first-time (and it shows) scribe Susan Nickson.

Amongst this new fare are “new” episodes of EastEnders – well, episodes broadcast a day before their terrestrial showing. Obviously, EastEnders‘ content reflects nothing of BBC3′s output, but it does something of the strategy. Following the trail blazed by 24 last year, the ruse of using EE (for the first couple of weeks of BBC3′s life, anyway) is simply a snare to bring the impatient BBC1 viewer to a channel they may otherwise not consider. That it’s only being made available to BBC3 for a limited amount of time speaks volumes about the perceived worth of EastEnders versus the profile of BBC3. You can’t escape the feeling that the Beeb feels that a regular slot on BBC3 would be to demean the flagship soap.

Nonethess, BBC3 does at least have much more direction than BBC Choice ever did – at times it felt like a dumping ground for any old rubbish. So far its great achievement has been not making its low budgets show on screen – most of the output could move onto BBC1 or BBC2 without looking obviously cheap. Whether the schedule will look the same in six months’ time is another question – but then most new channels (including five and E4, both of which launched with similar aims to BBC3) often make big changes after the first few months when it becomes obvious that some ideas haven’t worked. Compared to others, the launch of BBC3 has gone incredibly smoothly; perhaps thanks to the incredibly long planning period.

However, BBC3 is a very different beast to Sky One and E4, perhaps it’s two nearest competitors. The latter two concentrate on entertainment, plain and simple – that’s not a criticism, that’s what they were always supposed to do. BBC3, though, can’t do this, and must show a set amount of drama, of news, of factual programming. Basically, it has to have the same varied menu as BBC1 and BBC2. You’re not expected to like everything on those two channels, and so you’re not expected to like everything on BBC3 – it’s supposed to cater for all of the people, some of the time. If enough people find something like half a dozen programmes each week that appeal, BBC3 will be a success.