I hope it won’t empower those who see BBC3’s detractors as snobs and Herod-like enemies of the young, if I confess to masturbating with furious vigour and indecent grunting at the news that the corporation’s dedicated youth channel would soon be consigned to a haunted afterlife on the Internet. There it will take its rightful place amongst content detritus like cats in suits, becoming part of the short form, attention deficit baiting, empty headed distractarama that anecdotal (that is to say unreliable) evidence tells us our babes oft prefer to the well-produced, scripted television their parents were lumbered with, the poor, lucky bastards.
TV comedy producer Ash Atalla was furious at the decision, which he presumably learned about watching Three’s ADHD-friendly sixty second news. Atalla’s beef was that exterminating Three disenfranchised the young and working class. In the new history of Television (ed. David Irving), it had therefore become a fact that before the crowning of BBC3, its head covered in the blood and feculence of lazy assumptions, there was no BBC television for the young. Not a sausage. 16-34 year olds, though catered for in every other walk of life, threw their hands up and declared “for shame, nought’s made for me – no drama, no comedy, no documentaries – nothing – it’s as if the people who make television assume there’s some overlap between adult interests and my own. How little they know me, how neglected is my generation, how culturally impoverished am I.”
Yet watching Atalla berate Tony Hall and the suits who’d turned off the cameras as the highbrow mafia, it was hard not think of my own experience as a BBC viewer during teen and twentysomethingdom, and my recollection that the absence of a ghetto for youth programming didn’t dent my faith in the corporation one little bit.
Call me what you like, call me typical, call me someone who watched a lot of television, call me young at the time, but I never sat slumped in front of the drool box, enjoying a varied schedule designed to pique my interest on matters external to my everyday experience, fully conscious of the difference between the broader, more family orientated fare on BBC1 and the alternative, special interest programming and edgier comedy on BBC2, and thought, “there’s just nothing for me here; not a damn thing. Where’s my cup and ball?”
But someone in television, someone frightened that in the brave new world of digital broadcasting, where audiences once groomed to enjoy a balanced diet of news, arts and entertainment were aggressively reprogrammed to narrow their menu using niche channels as a way eliminating all that superfluous, wrongheaded variety – young audiences would leave the BBC to binge on television’s answer to crisps and chocolate: E4, Yikes, TelewizonWOW, and many more made up but highly plausible new digi-stations.
These brains worried, despite knowing nothing of the audience they feared losing, that so incurious were they, so indifferent to the adult world – contrary to the experience of every teenager who’s ever lived, and so self-absorbed – prisoners of their own, boorish, age-specific obsessions, that only a dedicated channel that offered an alternative, not just to commercial rivals but all that yawn inducing, high minded public service gruel on exant BBC services, could hope to retain them as willing licence fee payers. Sure, some fool argued that the BBC as it was provided those kids with an alternative to the slush they could suck up just about everywhere else and consequently the still forming brats were more than catered for, maybe even talked up to, but no: the suits had no faith in the pulling power of the alternative so designed Three to halt the exodus.
Thus a channel was born from the odious assumption that the only content of value to Jack and Jill Sprat was that as empty headed, glib and prurient as the BBC imagined them to be. Of course it was possible that an 18 year old interested in theatre may tune in to watch a two part Arena film celebrating the National – editorially sober, unapologetically highbrow, culturally interrogative – but such a youth was an aberration and certainly not reflective of the degenerates cuming into a rolled up copy of the Radio Times as their feckless, drink soaked parents collapsed in the outhouse.
BBC3’s version of the same documentary would have to descend to meet its target audience’s barrel scraping standard. Penelope Wilton’s voiceover would be replaced by tongue in cheek links from Rick Edwards, interviews with British Theatre’s doyens would have to be seasoned with the kind of facile asides beloved of a jejune generation – “Jonathan Miller, did you and Peter Cook ever play soggy biscuit?” – and the only plays featured would star James Corden. How else could a sapling relate to the material? Calling the show Arena would also be out of the question. What’s an arena when it’s at home? What does this strange, unfamiliar word have to do with theatre? Best to keep it simple and eye catching so the archetypal BBC3 viewer knows exactly what to expect: Theatre and Plays…with Rick fucking Edwards.
When you assume your audience are stupid and tell yourself that by making programmes calibrated to appeal to their presumed idiocy you’re doing them a favour, and therefore fulfilling your public service obligations, the programmes effectively make themselves. By auditing what’s hot amongst the obtuse and characterless using tried and tested techniques like overheard conversations, your sister’s Facebook updates on her kids and a skim through Twitter, a whole schedule can be created (padded out with films and repeats) that takes the pulse of today’s young bucks and does, only falling short when it comes to nurturing the inner life of a varied and open minded audience. Hairdressin’, Fucking Abroad, Celebrity Snafu, The Tawdry Adventures of Dick and Fanny, School Com, Kids with Flick Knives, Help Me, I’m Bored – commissioning takes a lunchtime. The titles aren’t important because the content neatly falls into place regardless.
Ash Atalla’s so of the now he can’t remember a time when the BBC wasn’t patronising younger licence fee payers. Those with longer memories may conclude that giving 16-34 year olds programming that extends into television every child’s natural instinct to be a part of the adult conversation around the dinner table (yes that old middle class ritual), is healthy, humane and the epitome of Reithan values, that old set of ideas, today rebranded elitist, that once justified the BBC’s funding model.
BBC3 wasn’t just unnecessary, it devolved the viewing experience of the young. Its stars have good reason to be worried; they’ll soon be asked to test their material against the far stricter admission criteria of BBCs 1 and 2. Many will be found wanting. They’re gonna need better knob gags. In the meantime the channel’s advocates will argue that BBC3 programmes are popular with their target viewers. We might call this the viewer paradox. Ignorant, white middle class television executives create programmes for an imaginary constituency of undemanding youths, which once screened, become what they watch. Retrospectively justifying the decision to create those shows, indeed the channel that hosted them, consequently becomes as easy as being affiliated to PIE. But we paid for this bilge my friends, our money retarded our kid’s viewing experience, and the best apology we can offer to the little bastards is to get them watching more aspirant fare before we lose them forever to the world of perma-stunted, frivolous web vomit.