As the final broadcast of the much-beloved BBC Three channel approaches, one can’t help but feel at least a little sad at its demise, if only for its commitment to providing back-to-back episodes of Family Guy and American Dad!. Nevertheless, Family Guy will still be shown on our screens (now on ITV2) and equating the value of BBC Three to these much-loved American comedy shows is misguided and does not do it justice as the quirky, unpredictable and occasionally pioneering channel it has become since its inception in 2003.
If this comes across as a love-letter to BBC Three, it’s because to a great extent it is precisely that. It’s a lament that despite a two-year campaign to save it – and what seemed like a subsequent U-turn on the BBC’s part – the channel is being taken off air. Not only that, but it has noticeably been left dwindling over the past year or so, with lower budget shows commissioned and less of them (with more reliance on cartoon crowd-pleasers than the human drama and emotion that BBC Three programmes often emphasised, whether in pseudo-realistic soppy romantic comedies like Him & Her or the undead cult hit Being Human). Like the removal of a perfectly good spare kidney (you may not need it but it’s definitely better to have it), BBC are axing the channel in favour of slimming down the BBC’s television output and a 50% budget cut to BBC Three’s funding as it moves online, leading one to question what exactly will be produced with even less resources.
One of BBC Three’s greatest features has been its documentaries, exploring a wide range of issues relevant to a huge number of young people such as drug abuse, sexism, racism, bullying. These programmes deliver information and a platform for opinions in a far more accessible way than other, slightly more traditional documentaries, by following well-known but young adults as they explore the issues, who are often fairly inexperienced but not dissimilar from viewers of a similar age and generally make for highly sympathetic viewing. Admittedly, there is the occasional exception to decent television programmes. Rent-A-Cop stands out as the most recent, terrible example of this and symptomatic of BBC Three’s (arguably) enforced decline. Nevertheless the good has most certainly outweighed the bad over the years and heart-warming comedies aside, the documentaries and programmes such as Is This Rape? Sex on Trial are thought-provoking and stimulate relevant, necessary discussions on various issues. The latter aired in November of last year and featured a group of 15-18 year olds watching ambiguously filmed (or not) clips of a fictional sexual assault case, with presenter Will Best asking uncomfortable questions after each clip. It was disturbing, interesting and surprisingly divisive in the responses within the group. One can’t help questioning the decision to remove a channel that encourages increasingly relevant discussions such as consent amongst young people.
On the other hand, despite the poor yet deservedly bad reception Rent-A-Cop received, it is also the kind of programme that can be aired on BBC Three, as a (just) watchable and pointless time-waster of bizarre reality TV. As a channel it has often been a celebration of the slightly cheesy or downright mediocre sitcoms that ultimately warm the heart and offer a comforting, vaguely comedic respite from the stresses of life into the early hours of the morning. The writing and plot may be shoddy, a bit thin or seemingly unfinished but performances from little known, promising actors can shine through. Similarly, whilst comedies like recent train-wreck Josh may have had little merit or purpose (written by comedian Josh Widdicombe, who plays himself), BBC Three has provided a channel for aspiring writers and actors alike; an environment in which programmes can be a little rough around the edges, a tad contrived, a bit…well, a bit BBC Three. It has also acted as a springboard for actors to progress from cult shows to bigger things, such as Aidan Turner’s gradual move from a troubled vampire on Being Human to a supporting role in The Hobbit Trilogy and the eponymous hero of BBC One’s immensely popular drama Poldark.
Often it’s home to the kind of shows you don’t mean to watch but end up quite enjoying; having thrown yourself onto the sofa, you switch on the TV and stop on BBC Three as you surf the channels. It’s anyone’s guess as to what will be on, whether you bother to watch Professor Green’s new documentary or simply switch to Gogglebox. This is a potential problem with moving it to the web; it’s doubtful that anyone will go to the effort of simply ‘checking’ BBC Three’s online offerings in the same way, as that’s not a norm in the nature of online viewing (yet), particularly when a huge budget cut will most likely halve the number of programmes and impede efforts to make good shows. Particularly with the popularity of online streaming services such as Amazon, Netflix and BBC iPlayer and its equivalents, it’s difficult to picture a bright future ahead for the unfortunate BBC Three.
Nevertheless, the potential of its online presence to attract viewers remains to be seen. Perhaps it will thrive. In the short term, however, the demise of BBC Three represents the sad loss of a channel from our TV screens that provided an outlet for many programmes that were often irreverent, yet far from insignificant.