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Last Updated: Wednesday, 13 October, 2004, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Digital report sets poser for BBC
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

BBC Four's Mind Games
Mind Games: BBC Four needs to be better funded, the report says
So, are BBC Three and BBC Four "poor value for money", as highlighted in the government's press release about its independent review of the BBC's digital channels?

That's the line the media have gone for.

Or are they "fairly good value for money", as stated in the report's own executive summary - and highlighted in the BBC's own response?

The answer, perhaps inevitably but confusingly, is both. It depends how they are being measured.

The report's author, Professor Patrick Barwise, of London Business School, says that in terms of persuading viewers to switch to digital television, BBC Three and BBC Four are providing poor value for money.

They have low viewing figures and comparatively high programme budgets, so in consumer terms they cost about 25p an hour per viewer.

By contrast, CBeebies, the channel for pre-school children, costs just 2p per viewer hour ("remarkable value for money", according to Barwise) and CBBC, the channel for older children, 10p per viewer hour ("excellent value").

Yet Prof Barwise also says BBC Three and BBC Four have met their commitments in terms of their "citizenship" benefits, by providing public service programming and keeping within their proposed programme budgets.

Taking the "consumer" and "citizen" aspects together, he concludes that they provide "fairly good value for money".

Cat among pigeons

Even so, he has set the cat among the pigeons.

CBBC presenters
Prof Barwise says CBBC could be rebranded
He has challenged the notion of "targeted television", the fundamental principle on which BBC Three and BBC Four were based.

He has also suggested that both services should replace their main news bulletins, which were key pillars of the "public service" commitment sought by Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell when approving the channels.

Ms Jowell actually turned down the original BBC Three, proposals saying they were insufficiently distinctive from similar commercial channels.

She finally gave it the go-ahead with what she called the "toughest conditions ever issued" - fewer repeats from BBC One or BBC Two, much more original programming, and no more than 10 per cent of the output from outside Europe.

Now Barwise is recommending the channel should "broaden its appeal" - in others words, become more popular - and he's done so in language designed to grab headlines.

BBC Three
Little Britain: BBC Three comes in for criticism
He says BBC Three's main news at 7pm "achieves nothing and attracts tiny audiences". It should be replaced by other factual programming, such as science, current affairs and business.

And though it has had some real hits, such as Little Britain, Monkey Dust and its 60 Seconds news bulletins, he describes the channel's "obsession with 25 to 34-year-olds" as "a creative straitjacket from which it should be released".

BBC Four, meanwhile, "should be more selective about showing arts and other programmes which virtually no one watches".

'Mass medium'

While it has successfully established itself as "a place to think", its audiences are still very low. It should be given greater resources for wider-interest programming and should revamp its main news programme, The World, or replace it with other factual programming.

The Barwise report recommends that both BBC Three and BBC Four should be reclassified as mainstream mixed-genre channels, rather than "audience-targeted" and "special interest" as at present.

CBeebies Bedtime Hour with Jessie Wallace
Happy ending: Prof Barwise feels CBeebies has been a success
"This conflicts with the evidence that television is a mass medium, not a niche medium" he says.

Against that, he's full of praise for the BBC's children's channels. He says CBeebies is "a triumph and an exemplary public service broadcasting service for pre-school children".

He believes CBBC, for older children, is an overall success, though he thinks it could be distinguished more clearly from the children's programmes on BBC One and BBC Two, which are also branded CBBC.

Now the ball is in the BBC's court. In an initial reaction, its director of television Jana Bennett welcomed the fact that Professor Barwise had endorsed the digital services and had said they should be given the opportunity to develop and grow.

But there's bound to be some real head-scratching, as the BBC tries to reconcile the report's recommendations for "broadening the channels' appeal" with the government's previous demand for the "toughest conditions ever issued".


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