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BBC expansion OK’d with one exception

Approval for 3 web withheld

CAMBRIDGE, U.K. — The BBC’s plans to expand its digital TV channels have been greenlit by the British government. But in a setback for the pubcaster, approval for its proposed BBC3 web has been withheld.

Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell, who announced her long-awaited decision at the Royal Television Society’s Cambridge Convention, said the 18-35 demographic that BBC3 aimed to target was already well served by the commercial TV sector. She ordered the BBC to rethink its plans.

The pubcaster can proceed with an arts-oriented BBC4 and two new kids channels plus five digital radio nets.

Pleased and surprised

The corporation’s director general, Greg Dyke, said he was pleased that Jowell had approved most of the new services, but that he was “surprised and naturally disappointed” that BBC3 had been put on hold.

The decision represents a minor victory for commercial broadcasters, including satcaster BSkyB, who have argued that younger viewers already have plenty to choose from the likes of Sky One, Channel 4’s spinoff entertainment channel E4 and terrestrial Channel 5.

But niche players like Disney and Nickelodeon — who lobbied against the BBC’s proposals — will see the new kids webs as unfair competition.

The BBC had earmarked about £90 million ($130 million) for BBC3 in its first year, and ambitious plans were being laid to commission expensive, domestically produced drama.

Jowell, whose address opened the Cambridge confab, said that the BBC could put forward fresh proposals for BBC3. Dyke said the BBC intends to do just that.

Strict conditions

Jowell stressed that the new services would be subject to strict conditions and that the new TV nets should not function at the expense of the core services, BBC1 and BBC2.

One of the kids channels is aimed at children 6-13, the other at preschoolers. Jowell said 75% of the older kids channel’s programming and 90% of the preschool service’s fare must be homegrown. As for BBC4 — aimed at “anyone interested in culture, arts and ideas” — 70% of its output must be of European origin.

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