Beeb gets a shock

Gov't challenges plan to launch digital BBC3

LONDON — The BBC’s ambitious plan to launch BBC3, a digital entertainment channel for under-35s, has received another setback.

In a move that stunned the pubcaster, U.K. media secretary Tessa Jowell, who in September refused to greenlight the service, said Tuesday that more research was required before a final decision on the net could be made.

“Now is not the time to impose a new publicly funded service on such a fragile commercial TV market,” the minister told a London conference attended by BBC chairman Gavyn Davies.

She revealed new research conducted by the Independent Television Commission that shows BBC3’s audience size is likely to be bigger than the BBC’s estimates.

Seeking more information

As a result, she has asked both the BBC and the commission to conduct more research until it is clear what impact BBC3 will have on private webs.

“This is the crucial issue,” she said. “If I give the go-ahead to BBC3, I’ve got to understand what its impact on the broadcasting ecology and the commercial broadcasters will be.

The ITC is responsible for regulating commercial U.K. broadcasters and has never been publicly involved in advising the government on BBC affairs.

To have the ITC charged with such an important task represents a loss of face for the BBC’s internal regulators, who are desperate to retain their independence as Jowell prepares to set up an all-encompassing communications regulator, Ofcom, that would embrace telcos as well as broadcasters.

Draining revenue

The BBC said BBC3 would take away about £5.5 million ($7.8 million) in revenue from commercial operators, but an independent assessment suggests the actual figure could be more than five times that amount.

The setback for the BBC was all the more humiliating because an hour or so before Jowell spoke, Davies, aware of the pubcaster’s unpopularity with younger audiences, had stressed the importance of BBC3 to his plans.

He said, “Without BBC3, our digital proposition looks that much less compelling and analog switchoff looks that much further off.”

The launch of BBC3, the most generously funded of the operator’s new digital webs with a budget of $112 million, is opposed by a wide alliance of commercial channels, including Sky and Channel 4, both of which score well with viewers in their 20s and 30s.

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