BBC 3’s Cohen proves critics wrong

Digital channel chases young viewers

LONDON — Not so long ago BBC 3, the U.K. pubcaster’s upstart digital channel aimed firmly at those hard-to reach teens and twentysomethings, faced an uncertain future. Not anymore.

Earlier this week the web’s controller, Danny Cohen, announced a relaunch for the channel somewhat predictably putting user-generated material and interactive services at the heart of the primetime schedule.

There will also be a new look, featuring a brash pink logo and a promise that BBC3 is to be the first of the corp.’s TV networks to be simultaneously streamed on the Internet.

Cohen declared: “BBC 3 should be known for pioneering risk, and be obsessed with all things new — new talent, new programs and a new relationship between television and the Internet.”

A good soundbite, but quite what this new relationship boils down to is anyone’s guess. All broadcasters are trying to ensure the threat of the online world is transformed into an opportunity.

Yet the fact that the BBC now feels committed to the channel, when in the fall critics like veteran corporation anchorman John Humphrys were calling for its head, is encouraging for the ambitious Cohen, who joined the network last April, and his left-field station.

Humphrys, presenter of Radio 4 public affairs flagship “Today,” thought that at a time when the BBC needed to make hefty cuts it would make more sense to ax BBC3 than to trim core services like news and public affairs.

He had a point. The young audience the station caters for is well served in Blighty by the likes of niche stations Sky One, ITV2, E4 and Virgin One, not, of course, forgetting the youth-friendly fare available on mainstream channels.

Moreover, it was easy to poke fun at BBC 3’s apparently cavalier approach to public service via sensationalist shows like “My Man Boobs and Me” and “Fuck Off, I’m Fat.”

What the anti-BBC3 brigade failed to point out was that in its five years on air (BBC3 was created from the ashes of failed digital web BBC Choice) the network has often punched above its weight in terms of nurturing innovative shows; at around $200 million, its budget is around a tenth of the pubcaster’s flagship channel, BBC1.

This is especially true in comedy, where the much-feted boy-meets-girl story “Gavin and Stacey” is shaping up to be the most successful laffer of this year’s awards season.

This week, “Gavin and Stacey” added another gong to an impressive tally beating a strong field to be voted best multichannel program at the Broadcast Awards. This follows three prizes at the British Comedy Awards in December.

The success of “Gavin and Stacey” is the latest in a winning line of BBC 3 comedies that includes “The Mighty Boosh” and, most spectacularly “Little Britain,” which went on to become a huge mainstream hit.

Comedy is, arguably, the hardest of all TV genres to get right. But given the right creative culture, the Brits have often scored by pushing the envelope, both in sitcom and sketch shows. This is precisely what BBC3 is good at doing.

The channel has also raised the creative bar in other areas. Just before Christmas it screened an inventive take on the Nativity, broadcasting a modern version of the Bible story live from the streets of Liverpool.

In place of carols, 20th century anthems, several penned by the city’s most famous sons John Lennon and Paul McCartney, were sung by a crowd led on by the Angel Gabriel depicted as a blue collar worker.

Shows this innovative and ambitious ought to be the lifeblood of the BBC, especially if it is to persuade young people to use its services.

As the previous head of BBC 3 Stuart Murphy once said: “I find it unbelievable that really bright people can say: ‘Let’s cut one of the future services, let’s cut something that’s aimed at the next generation of license-fee payers and let’s just keep on doing ‘Today’ instead’.”

Murphy’s successor, Cohen, is right to attempt to fully embrace the online world as part of his strategy to keep BBC3 on the radar of his fickle audience, but ultimately it’s programs like “Gavin and Stacey” and “Liverpool Nativity” that will determine his channel’s future in the long term — and silence critics.