Dark Days

Ian Jones on the birth of BBC3

First published March 2003

The gruesome and all-too palpable fog of anti-BBC rhetoric floating through political, business and media circles at present is of a kind not witnessed in Britain for almost a generation. You have to go back to the mid-1980s to find a comparable instance of so many enemies of the Corporation firing off laments and litanies on an almost daily basis.

The BBC has always, and will always, have its enemies; after all, there are some for whom the very idea of having a public service broadcaster operating to the scope and influence of the Corporation is an unequivocal anathema. Yet the present climate of suspicion, even hatred, feels of a different intensity than of the last few years. Something deeply menacing is abroad, able to take on a number of guises, and shift the angle (and foundation) of its attack almost overnight. Rational criticism falls in alongside gut prejudice, while unlikely alliances between straight-talking commentators and austere intellectuals merely compounds the amount of newsprint decrying the state of the Corporation and – always a giveaway – invoking the spirit of Lord Reith. The result is an anti-BBC bandwagon rattling through the columns of crowing hacks and infusing even the reporting of ratings, scheduling and the blandest of press releases.

Central to this seems to be the fact that at the moment the BBC is at a simultaneously creative, commercial and financial peak. Economic efficiencies are being rolled out in tandem with genuine innovation in a manner imbued with flair and confidence. Nothing like that has happened at the BBC for decades. Attempting to rationalise this process, some reach for superlatives and justly-deserved praise. Others smell conspiracy and fear a Corporation that appears to have found a personality once more after a rather neutered and poker-faced 10 years. Either way, the conception and development of the BBC’s digital television services, of which the launch of BBC3 marked a hugely important achievement, has by all accounts played a crucial role in fostering the current climate of bold vision matched with ferocious animosity.

“When I hear the word digital, I reach for my gun”

Back in 1997 the very notion, never mind the logistics, of funneling substantial funding into the creation of digital television had turned the stomachs of even the most respected and experienced of Britain’s media establishment. But the small minority of advocates boasted one particularly high-profile convert. Whether through genuine foresight, or bristling arrogance, John Birt – still deeply entrenched at the top of the Beeb – was fiercely shepherding his Corporation into an ever-deeper embrace with both digital telly and the internet. His behaviour raised the hackles of his already vast legion of detractors, and reinforced the suspicions of his numerous arch-nemeses. Michael Grade’s rebuke “When I hear the word digital, I reach for my gun” exemplified both an instinctive mistrust for anything Birt was seen to be implementing, plus a more widespread skepticism as to the merits of something so vague as to be indefinable without recourse to flip charts and frippery.

As such the first significant results of the BBC’s expansion into non-terrestrial broadcasting, News 24, launched on Sunday 9 November 1997 to a mix of ignorance and not a little confusion. Few actually saw it; the channel was initially only available via cable in less than two million homes, besides being simulcasted through the night on BBC1. But many contrived to have an opinion about it. Within months of its debut, News 24 was variously accused of being too bland, or too solemn, or more generally an astonishing waste of money. Part of this could be ascribed to an understandable fear of anything new. A lot of it was to do in which the way digital TV, right from the start, wasn’t presented to audiences and businesses alike as being a positive medium. Its immediate and obvious benefits were sold short, maybe because nobody really knew how to do the selling, but also because as so often during Birt’s era at the BBC the need to appear to be doing something progressive and modern took precedence over nailing what exactly the “something” in question was.

News 24′s immediate rival, Sky News, already had a reach of roughly six million households, but wisely viewed its new competitor as a chance to hone its high standards still further. This only made News 24, at least to start with, look even more absurd. It was frankly the worst possible advert for digital television, being a grisly Birtian creation where building a relationship with viewers ranked well below the need to appear earnestly contemporary, exhaustively well-resourced and above all studiously impersonal. Moreover its limited availability highlighted how the success and impact of the Beeb’s digital aspirations would forever be shackled to the proliferation of technology to deliver the choice of channels to people’s homes. Regardless of output, cynicism about the means by which you could get digital telly quickly created a backdrop against which the implementation of the BBC’s multimedia ambitions would always be dogged by disdain, flippancy and world-weariness. Seeds were being planted for the growth of an astonishing anti-BBC groundswell of opinion.

“A friendly channel”

BBC Choice was launched on Wednesday 23 September 1998. As the BBC’s first fully-fledged digital-only channel this was an auspicious occasion, although no-one was actually able to see it until October 1 when digital set-top decoders went on sale in the shops. The fanfare whipped up by the BBC was wholly justified; this was indeed a landmark in TV history. But mindful of News 24′s uber-soft launch, BBC Choice was paraded in front of the country in as unsubtle a manner possible. Katharine Everett, BBC Choice head of programming, cooed: “There’s been months, years of talks about digital. Now it’s here.” A tiny budget of £20m was to provide 3,500 hours of programming a year. There’d even be different versions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland incorporating local as well as network programming. Above all it was to be “free-to-air”, in other words non-subscription, and guaranteed to viewers once they’d paid a one-off sum for their decoder.

Yet the promise of watching Wimbledon from different angles or swapping Match of the Day for “informed comment” in fanzine-styled Row Z didn’t inspire mass interest or, it seemed, approval. Confusion over who was carrying which service, amplified by the launch of ONdigital in November, buried the benefits and potential of BBC Choice under mounting avalanches of prejudice and bad publicity. Birt’s interpretation of BBC Choice as being a “commitment to public service broadcasting (which) will ensure the BBC brings the benefits of digital broadcasting to every household, not just to those who can pay extra,” seemed ludicrously abstract and obtuse to people worried they might now be missing out on episodes of EastEnders.

In addition the early programming on BBC Choice seemed reflective of 100 different people lobbying for 100 different appreciations of what an “entertainment channel” should be. Katharine Everett’s preferred slogan for BBC Choice – “a friendly channel” – was hardly inspiring. In contrast, the Beeb’s roster of pay television channels developed in conjunction with Flextech seemed far more focused and rational. During this time the popular UK Gold was joined by UK Arena, UK Style, UK Horizons and, of particular note, UK Play, a mix of contemporary music and comedy. This last channel’s unashamedly formulaic and unpretentious image was carefully nurtured by 26-year old former BBC producer and youngest ever channel controller Stuart Murphy.

UK Play’s emphatic wooing of a target demographic, 16 – 24 year olds, caught the eye of BBC management, as did the bullish élan of Murphy. Impressed above all with his demonstrable feel for the cutting edge alongside the bankable, Murphy was accordingly dispatched to take over BBC Choice in November 1999 and establish a sensible profile for the channel, now blessed with a budget creeping up towards £50m but still registering zero ratings. The truth was it had been difficult to point to any obvious faces or flagship programmes on BBC Choice. Neither did it demand to be watched. But Murphy seemed under no illusions about the nature of his new post. “I can do tough jobs, and I know Choice is going to be a difficult one,” he boasted, on being charged with wooing a widened audience of 25 – 44 year olds, including families with young kids, with a budget that was obviously too small.

“A bizarre fantasy world of an Auntie’s Bloomers script”

In retrospect Stuart Murphy noted that, “When Choice started out, the BBC hadn’t launched a general entertainment channel for years, not since BBC2. It’s a really tricky thing to launch and get right. At first it tried to be all things to all people.” Accordingly he attempted to restore a bit of order to the schedules. EastEnders was fixed at 10.30pm, zones for comedy and drama were introduced on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, and themed weekends were launched, including an Asian funk special from Birmingham. Most significantly of all, he realized the value and pull of a regular news/entertainment show. “The reason I’m excited,” Murphy enthused, “is that BBC Choice embraces being innovative, and that should happen across all genres. We’ll definitely look at the BBC’s remit of news and current affairs.”

But before he could realise this, Murphy was already attracting the ire of colleagues within the Corporation. After reading another of Terry Wogan’s increasingly bitter attacks on his own employers, Murphy memorably accused the DJ of, “living in a bizarre fantasy world of an Auntie’s Bloomers script.” This prompted two BBC broadcasting and presentation staffers, Mark Thomas and Christina Dunley, to pen a letter to the BBC in-house magazine Ariel slamming Murphy for “wanting us to work for a Stalinist BBC where employees dare not utter any criticism of their masters. Let’s face it Stuart,” they concluded, “Choice has never delivered on the promise of its name … the sooner BBC3 rises from its ashes the better.”

If anything such criticism just made Murphy all the more dogged in his pursuit of success. Rumours of BBC Choice becoming BBC3, either through mutation or an all-out relaunch, had been doing the rounds for months. Confirmation, however, wasn’t made official for another year, by which point a sea change had occurred at the very top of the BBC. John Birt’s replacement with Greg Dyke, and the promotion of Mark Thompson to the position of director of television, afforded a chance for digital television to be re-energised. It also meant that as the stakes were raised, and Thompson in particular provided the BBC’s critics with evidence of a ready-made digital zealot, the nature of debate necessarily became more emotive, melodramatic – and sensational.

“We will need to break a lot more rules before we’re through”

Dyke chose the 2000 Edinburgh Festival to outline the Corporation’s intentions to rework its entire digital policy to give an overall more complementary and plural BBC platform. He acknowledged that both BBC Choice and its sister digital channel BBC Knowledge were launched, “… without enough money to commission truly original and inspiring programmes.” So both were to be reworked. BBC Choice was to become BBC3 offering, “… original British comedy, drama and music as well as providing arts, education and social action programming delivered in a way likely to be attractive to a young audience. We’ve also been piloting a very different sort of news bulletin that breaks many of the conventions of traditional news services. I suspect in developing BBC3 we will need to break a lot more rules before we’re through.”

In fact, a few details of this grand plan had already emerged through both official speeches and unofficial leaks. The Sunday Times had reported that BBC3 was to be launched as early as April 2001. Dyke had actually discussed his plans with the House of Commons Media Select Committee in July, while the month before Mark Thompson had given a much-documented speech at the Banff TV festival in Canada mooting the concept of utterly re-structuring the BBC around genre-specific TV channels. Now it was all out in the open, the Corporation were careful to preface their expansion with a bout of public consultation. At the start of October 2000, BBC Chairman Christopher Bland launched an exercise in order to gain comments – and, implicitly, approval – for the entire digital strategy. The full roll call was almost overwhelming in its scale. Besides BBC3 and BBC4 (ex-BBC Knowledge) there were to be two new children’s services, plus on radio a black music station, an Asian station, a new music network for “the post-Beatles generation”, a speech-based service focusing on drama, comedy and readings, plus a spin-off Five Live service.

“This is an exciting day for the BBC,” Bland waxed. “It is not every day, indeed not every year, that we get to announce four new TV channels and five new radio stations.” But he was careful to anticipate what would soon become a major thorn in the Beeb’s side – objections from rival commercial broadcasters of the BBC simply extending its monopoly from within the safety of its Corporation status and subsequently running them out of business. Bland emphasized that, for instance, 80% of programming on the children’s channels would be made in Britain compared with 9% on the commercial pay-TV channels.

Not everybody was against it. Stuart Prebble, chief executive of ONdigital, supported the BBC’s plans as popularising awareness and appreciation of digital television in itself. But the majority of copy in print and online media was quickly characterised by talk of the BBC “dumbing down” and of a prospective banishment of niche programming to little-watched niche channels. This, as now, was arguably deeply flawed reasoning. The bulk of it seemed founded upon some abstract idea of there being a golden age of BBC broadcasting when the schedules reeled from wall-to-wall enlightenment and a nation tuned in night after night for cultural nourishment and rigorous learning. It also implied a similar kind of mythical wonderland could exist in the future, and – crucially – only on BBC1 and 2.

In truth the BBC, as with all broadcasters throughout history, had always needed to balance expectation with reality, and trade off unselfconscious mass entertainment against sometimes ludicrously intense and lofty debate. Now, faced with BBC1 and 2 remaining the Corporation’s representatives in a terrestrial landscape ruthlessly competing for audiences, a more sensibly populist strategy was called for. In this context, BBC3 and 4 were obvious tools for maintaining the Corporation’s responsibility for transmitting information, education and entertainment, and inheriting strands and genre from the parent channels as digital TV take-up was itself rolled out. Above all, such programming could now only survive in a place like BBC3 or 4; in treating their launch and development seriously, the BBC was simply acting to preserve the kind of output that wouldn’t get the time of day anywhere else.

Meanwhile Stuart Murphy was busy contriving to render BBC Choice a far more watchable and intriguing proposition. For starters came The RDA hosted by the urbane John Gordillo and far and away the best show ever to appear on the channel. Liquid News, the affable youth magazine fronted by Christopher Price, became under executive producer Chris Wilson one of the highlights of 2000. Indeed, conscious of mounting hostility from other broadcasters and anxious about Government interference, Wilson and Stuart Murphy let it be known that Liquid News could well be the basis for any notional BBC3 “news” bulletin, albeit heavily weighted towards showbusiness. As such they recruited Colin Hancock, one of the producers from Radio 1′s enduring and successful Newsbeat, to help distil their respective experiences and ideas into a workable product.

However Murphy had a new factor to acknowledge come the start of the New Year. Launched on 18 January 2001, E4 was a self-conscious competitor with both BBC Choice and Sky One for the lucrative audience of 20 and 30 year olds, but whose fortunes quickly proved to be a salutary lesson for all interested parties. In particular, its pronounced difficulties in first establishing and then sustaining a tangible coherency to its schedules seemed to demonstrate the problems inherent in pitching a network entirely around half a dozen or so “known” programmes which appealed to conflicting audiences yet were supposed to add up to a rounded identity.

In turn those at both C4 and Sky now viewed any attempt to overhaul BBC Choice as a solely entertainment proposition with huge alarm and repeatedly voiced such fears to anyone and everyone who’d listen. An informal alliance of commercial broadcasters also emerged at the start of 2001 sharing a general trepidation about the speed of the BBC’s expansion and the fact it seemed to be progressing unchecked. Seven broadcasters – BSkyB, Telewest, Artsworld, MTV, Nickelodeon, Discovery and Turner Broadcasting – wrote to the Government in protest, claiming: “We are extremely concerned that the BBC is behaving as if it had been given tacit consent to build their plans for new services without the proper process being adhered to.”

Fuel to their not exactly magnanimous fire came in the shape of the proposals the BBC submitted to the Government, also on 18 January, for the development of all its new digital channels. Here was the first cogent outline of what BBC3 would look like. Designed, rather glibly, to focus “exclusively on the young and young at heart”, it was anticipated the channel would launch at the end of 2001 or the start of 2002, broadcast from 8pm to 2am and be aimed at 16 – 34 year olds. An hourly news service was mentioned, as well as contemporary drama, light entertainment and new talent comedy shows in the vein of The League of Gentlemen. Its start up budget would be £152m. Buoyed by the sense of things moving forward at last, Stuart Murphy took advantage of a presentation to independent TV producers in February to appeal for, memorably, “screwy and fucked up TV” to populate the new channel.

But BBC executives hoping for an early settlement were to be disappointed. Everything was put on hold while the Government fought the General Election, and an unwanted distraction came in the form of an interjection from waspish ex-BBC deputy director of television David Docherty. It transpired that, after a night out with colleagues, Docherty had decided to see how many BBC related internet domain names were available to own. He was stunned to discover, and were all free, and sure enough went ahead and registered them. After publicising his quest, he selflessly offered to hand back all the domains to his former employers – pending negotiation, naturally.

“All we can do is be optimistic”

The BBC pressed on regardless. Recruitment began for presenters to front the anticipated BBC3 news service, albeit with the proviso, as voiced by a BBC source, that, “mingers need not apply”. Advertisements requested personalities “equally at ease reporting on Eritrea, Eminem and Everton.” In April 2001 the Corporation signed Johnny Vaughan to front a nightly chat show broadcast on both BBC Choice and BBC1. A major drama series, New Town, costing almost £10m, was also announced, but 45 Minutes, a woeful football show hosted by Lisa Rogers and Joe Mace that made an unjust name for itself thanks to an appearance by Les Ferdinand during which he claimed he’d been the one responsible for vandalizing the Blue Peter garden, was cancelled.

Director of television Mark Thompson mounted a very public display of humility in acknowledging “not enough thought or money” went into the original development of both BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge. Indeed, the Corporation’s annual report, published in July 2001, conceded that BBC Choice “could have been better thought out,” and that an extra £100m had been pledged for investment in “developing ideas” for BBC3. But still no word came of when Government approval was likely. Instead, the original plan to launch the two new children’s channels in the summer, followed by BBC3 in the autumn, was scrapped after the Government broke for recess before having come to a decision. The BBC’s response to the private sector’s comments on their plans had been submitted in May; now the Government extended the period for further reactions from other broadcasters to the end of July. “We can only surmise that the strength of the opposition to the BBC’s plans has made the Department for Culture, Media and Sport sit up and think harder about them,” speculated an ITV source, gleefully watching the Beeb’s confusion.

It proved to be a frustrating summer. Hunkered down in his rather drab Mortimer Street offices, BBC controller of digital channels Roly Keating tried to put on a brave face. “All we can do is be optimistic. We believe in this plan, and we really hope that the government and the rest of the industry can be persuaded.” With BBC Choice still labouring under a 0.4% audience share, Keating was unabashed in flagging the BBC3 relaunch as the point for a total re-orientation. “I think you’ll see a colossal step change when BBC3 happens. We can’t give up on a crucial section of the audience, the mainstream audience of the future.”

That the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell then proceeded to throw out the plans for BBC3 in mid-September (but approve all the others) was a move greeted with much smug satisfaction by the Corporation’s foes. Jowell’s central issue was with the channel outline being, “not well substantiated and the degree of public value of the service not established”. It seemed an act of both calculated retribution, but also misplaced bluster, creating the sense of a Government dictating the roll out of digital television services regardless of how and when both content and technology was designed to come on stream. It also added to the cumulative impression of digital telly heading for the rocks, a sense amplified by almost daily dispatches detailing the failure of ITV Digital (formerly ONdigital).

Jowell had other critics. Some berated her for missing an opportunity to withhold approval of one of the children’s channels, or even BBC4, and demand a different allocation of funding or shift in emphasis on programming before giving the nod to the entire platform including BBC3. There was also an element of unexplained perversity: why was BBC Choice, with its ragbag mix of lifestyle, escapist and frivolous programming, permitted to continue broadcasting, when the far more organized BBC3 wasn’t even allowed to progress to the development stages? Whatever, it meant for the faintly ludicrous situation whereby BBC4 could launch (which it did, on 2 March 2002) before its numerically superior cousin. It also meant some of the commissions earmarked for BBC3 – including a new “extreme” series of Robot Wars, and the dreadful Stupid Punts – now had to turn up rather sheepishly on BBC Choice.

“Like a cup of cold sick”

Refusing to be defeated, on 3 December the BBC submitted a new plan. The 50 page document was self-consciously more detailed than the previous proposals, and made great play of a nightly 15 minute news bulletin plus hourly news summaries (provisionally titled 60 Seconds). 25 to 30 documentaries were to be screened a year (a parity with BBC1) as were at least 95 hours of new current affairs, education, music and arts programming. The document also tried to emphasise, correctly, the mutual benefits to both broadcasters and politicians from seeing digital TV work and work well. Mark Thompson – in one of his last statements before defecting to Channel 4 – declared the new proposals to be centred on a “radically stronger public service offering. Over the past few months we’ve in my view developed a much more compelling, detailed proposal. There’s still entertainment, but there’s also a rich and meaningful commitment to informing and educating.” Stuart Murphy was more explicit. Testifying to having been “gutted” at the original rejection, “We thought ‘let’s just start again from scratch’. I think someone from the team literally tore up the previous proposal.”

Off the back of this new initiative, the BBC were able to announce a TV-version of Matt Lucas and David Walliams’ Radio 4 show Little Britain in the pipeline. Dom Joly was also swiped from C4. Meantime Johnny Vaughan’s chat show began on 7 January 2002, running on BBC Choice at 7pm Monday – Wednesdays. After a nervous opening, this seemed to settle into a format that made for engaging viewing, accessible entertainment and the occasional talking point, though it did smack of the channel placing all its hopes in just one man.

Come February, however, the month when the Corporation launched its two new children-orientated channels, CBBC and Cbeebies, Tessa Jowell asked the BBC for yet more clarification on the nature of BBC3. This time the request was for further information on schedules and target audiences, prompted by unceasing protests from C4, ITV, C5 and Sky that the Beeb would simply be competing for the same viewers as themselves. Then, reportedly the night before giving the green light, a sudden change of heart made Jowell postpone the decision yet one more time and ask the ITC to provide a definite assessment on how BBC3 might affect advertising revenues on rival networks. A member of the BBC’s executive committee now observed: “This announcement has been greeted here like a cup of cold sick. We are furious.” New BBC Chairman Gavyn Davies was more on-message. “BBC3 will feature overwhelmingly domestic content,” he insisted. “Channel 4 has achieved the success it has had partly through American imports and certainly E4 is very dependent on American imports. BBC3 will also have an explicit public service orientation that I don’t feel E4, or even Channel 4, has. When I look at the types of Channel 4 programme that are most successful by my definition of public service, they are not actually watched by young people.”

While the BBC’s resubmitted plans were hauled over the rack by rival broadcasters, in July 2002 it emerged the ITC had for one finally come round to the need to work with, rather than against, the Corporation. With strict conditions such as a 90% quota of British programmes (to make an obvious distinction from Sky One and E4) and a minimum level of news and current affairs, they grudgingly conceded BBC3 would be “manageable” and would provide a valuable service. Their prediction was that, after two to three years, BBC3 would gain an audience share of about 2%, resulting in an impact on rivals’ advertising revenue of about £7m a year: much less than the £15m-£25m previously feared. A sense of things finally shifting the BBC’s way was amplified in the same month when the Corporation – together with Crown Castle – won the right to run the country’s terrestrial digital network, replacing the bankrupt ITV Digital.

“A no-win situation”

On Tuesday 17 September the Government finally gave the go-ahead for BBC3, tempering any sense of occasion with the unlikely warning that it would not hesitate to close the channel down if the Corporation failed to meet a number of strict public service undertakings. Tessa Jowell sounded less than enthusiastic in her conclusion that BBC3 would be “genuinely distinctive, genuinely public service and genuinely innovative”. Indeed, the caveats were ladled on thick: “Programming must be of a consistently innovative and risk-taking character … I am determined BBC3 should be a distinctive public service channel that is not competing with what is already out there in a vigorous marketplace.”

However as concrete launch plans were now drawn up, it was hard to feel a conspicuous sense of excitement, or of things moving towards a self-evident climax. The process of creation had been so long that the next stage, that of realization, couldn’t help but seem less prestigious and revelatory than it should. The mystique and gloss of BBC3 had flaked away over the months and years of logjam, negotiation and rebuttal. Besides, now the channel had the nod another phalanx of naysayers lined up to moan about the state of current TV. David Attenborough in particular raged at how, “Broadcasting covers a narrower spectrum than it once did. The danger with the trend towards specialist channels is that it removes a valuable means of recruiting new audiences to new and fascinating things. That is to be deplored.”

In response an unnamed BBC television executive summed up the problem that had so dogged the Corporation since it first embarked on its digital strategy. “We are in a no-win situation. If we try and promote digital take-up by doing something like (BBC3), the press comes down on us like a ton of bricks, accusing us of abusing the licence fee. But at the same time we want people to watch these new channels, and indeed the government requires us to promote digital take-up in general.”

It’s a cruel dilemma, and one the BBC is now faced with navigating from a position of bitterly ironic predominance. Events have conspired to leave the Corporation as the single most important exponent and practitioner of digital television: a wry counterpoint to its embattled early experiments in the medium. Simultaneously the body of opinion that endeavours to argue otherwise continues to drift into a nebulous mass of anti-Beeb crusaders. Salient points of argument get lost in the noise of insults and abuse, so that a glance over articles and columns critical of the Corporation reflect sentiments ranging from the rigidly theoretical to the purposefully malevolent, and from the broadly focused to the clinically personal.

But the way this ragbag of opposition now stretches to incorporate the petitions of the bitter ex-employee (numbering all the way from Jimmy Young to Jeremy Isaacs), the suspicious politician (of all parties) and the fellow broadcaster is most frightening of all. Enemies are on every side, and you feel that no matter how well BBC3 does, by any measure, the constituency that wants it to fail almost have the power to tip the course of broadcasting in this country away from a promising, imaginative future towards a confused and destructive past. These are dark days indeed.