Shiny Shelf

State of Teleplay: BBC3 and BBC4

By Eddie Robson on 29 December 2005

Remember how BBC2 used to run little themed seasons of films and/or programmes over Christmas? They’ve been skipping it the past few years and it now appears that this is the job of BBC4, which ran an excellent collection of programmes on the ghost story with lots of rarely-seen archive stuff in the week before Christmas, then a comprehensive Conan Doyle season the week after, and is gearing up for a load of Asian cinema in January. This is wonderful, but as with every wonderful thing BBC4 does, there’s the nagging knowledge that ten years ago it would have been done on BBC2 and been seen by five times as many people.

Anyway, after the initial criticisms the BBC’s two main digital channels are now the best reasons to pick up Freeview. BBC3 has been able to boast ‘The Mighty Boosh’, ‘Bodies’, ‘Nighty Night’ and ‘Casanova’, whilst BBC4 is increasingly leavening its heavily documentary-based diet with the archive programming abandoned by BBC2 and experiments like the live ‘Quatermass’ remount, and can incidentally boast the finest new comedy of the year, ‘The Thick of It’.

However, both channels suffer from messy scheduling, especially BBC3 which commissions great programmes and then casts them adrift in a vast sea of ‘Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps’ repeats. Since any given evening on BBC3 only contains two or three new programmes, was it not possible to find a better slot than 11pm for ‘Boosh’? Without adopting the stifling rigidity of More4, BBC3 could really benefit from a more defined shape. It’s unfortunate that the ‘EastEnders’ repeat clogs the really good slot of the night, 10pm: presumably this offers strong ratings but it’s hardly the best lead-in for ‘Nighty Night’. (Although both have started to resemble parodies of bad British films, with ‘EastEnders’ a cheap PG-rated gangster movie and ‘Nighty Night’ a harrowingly nihilistic version of a Robin Askwith-style sex comedy.)

The tactic of airing new material at wildly differing times seems to be a way of making the BBC3 schedule look busier than it really is, and encouraging viewers to tune in at different times. I think it’d be better to focus attention on the new stuff by giving it a defined time slot, say between 9pm and 10pm on a middle-of-the-week night, and a couple of high-profile repeats in the same week, as E4 does. BBC2 has scheduled its comedy in a well-publicised ‘zone’ for years and it’s an easy and effective way of making successes rub off on each other.

The dominance of the BBC1 and ITV1 soaps also means that nothing remotely costly is risked between 7pm and 9pm, so it’s largely cheap fly-on-the-wall stuff on BBC3 at that time. Again, with the BBC’s stated target of increasing reach, it might be an idea to provide a genuine alternative at this busy time. In fact, this applies to all channels – this is peak viewing time and yet, if you don’t like the soaps, there’s often nothing to watch.

Generally, though, the BBC’s multichannel strategy is actually starting to look like a strategy, and at just the right time – it’s only a few years until everybody with a TV will be getting these channels and they’ll no longer have the benefit of obscurity. Rather, they’ll be subject to the same scrutiny as BBC1 and BBC2, which in practice means an increasing number of column inches in the Daily Mail complaining that the licence fee is being wasted. Mind you, they said that about ‘Doctor Who’ and look how that worked out.

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By Eddie Robson

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