BBC3 to go online-only

Comedian Jack Whitehall
Comedian Jack Whitehall
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THE BBC has confirmed plans to make digital channel BBC3 an online-only service next year, with director-general Tony Hall saying it is “the right thing to do”.

The channel will be replaced with a BBC1 +1 service and many of its shows will be also be shown on BBC1 and BBC2.

In an email to staff, Mr Hall said: “I believe it’s the right thing to do: young audiences - the BBC 3 audience - are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world. Twenty-five percent of viewing by 16 to 24 year-olds is to catch-up or other screens and over the next few years we expect that to reach 40%.”

Mr Hall said he could not “rule out” further changes to “programmes or services”.

The plans, which are subject to approval by the BBC Trust, would save more than £50 million a year, with £30 million of that earmarked to go towards drama on BBC1.

The BBC’s director of television, Danny Cohen, a former controller of BBC3, said the move was “the biggest strategic decision the BBC has made in over a decade”.

He said: “BBC3 will continue to do all the things we love but it will also have the freedom to break traditional shackles and allow the BBC to be a leader in digital change.

“It will not just be a TV channel distributed online. There is a wonderful creative opportunity here to develop new formats with new programme lengths - and to reach young audiences in an ever-growing number of ways.”

Mr Cohen said that “in an ideal world we would not be making this move for a few more years”.

He added: “Given an entirely free hand, I would make this change in about four or five years’ time, using the years between now and then to slowly shift the balance between linear and on-demand BBC3 content.

“That would be a safer, less risky strategy. But we don’t have the choice to wait and do that due to the investments we need to make.

“I want to protect programme budgets from more major cuts across the board and the BBC has to find the money for new obligations including the World Service that will cost £350 million a year.”

A spokeswoman for the trust said its “priority” would be to “listen to the views of audiences”.

“Any major changes to existing BBC services require approval from the trust,” she said.

“In this case, we expect to conduct a public value test, including a public consultation, so licence fee-payers will have the opportunity to have their say in the process.”

Gerry Morrissey, leader of the technicians’ union Bectu, expressed concern about the likely impact on jobs.

“We are extremely disappointed that the BBC has made this decision with very little consideration for its employees and freelance staff.

“We are being told they will not say anything about staffing before the end of the year, which is totally unacceptable.

“We will be consulting our members and will make representations to the BBC Trust.”

Mr Morrissey said he did not believe that moving BBC3 from the screen to the internet would make it easier to connect with a younger audience, adding that the move was part of cuts caused by the freeze in the licence fee.

“Over 3,000 jobs have been lost, quality has declined and now content is suffering.”

An online petition calling on the trust to “save the channel and to continue to invest and air new comedy, drama and music programming for young adults in its rightful home” has been signed by more than 60,000 people since it was launched on Tuesday.

BBC Three started broadcasting in 2003 and has been the launch pad for some the corporation’s biggest shows and some of its most controversial.

The hits:

• Gavin and Stacey - The sitcom story of an Essex boy and a Welsh girl’s relationship started on the channel in 2007 before moving over to BBC1 where it became a massive mainstream hit and made stars of writing and acting duo Ruth Jones and James Corden.

• Little Britain - The sketch show and its stars, David Walliams and Matt Lucas, made two series before moving over to BBC1 and even inspired an American version Little Britain USA.

• Our War - The documentary, which used footage filmed by British soldiers on the front line in Afghanistan, won a TV Bafta last year.

The misses:

• Anthea Turner: Perfect Housewife - The show which starred the former daytime TV favourite helping make hopeless housewives house-proud ran for three series.

• Coming of Age - The BBC described the comedy as a “frank look” at teenage life, but some people could not bear to look, with one critic calling it the “worst sitcom ever”.

• Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents - The show followed teenagers on their first holidays without their parents, who were in fact following their every move with secret cameras. One newspaper accused it of blazing a “vomit-flecked” trail for subsequent shows.