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Last Updated: Monday, 15 August 2005, 11:41 GMT 12:41 UK
Murphy's law for BBC Three
By Darren Waters
BBC News entertainment reporter

Stuart Murphy
BBC Three controller Stuart Murphy has had hits with comedy

In August the BBC News website spoke to Stuart Murphy, outgoing controller of digital channel BBC Three who is now joining independent production company RDF.

Mr Murphy was the man with the task of bringing younger audiences to the BBC, and with developing new acting and writing talent.

His role and that of BBC Three could not be underestimated. In the multichannel age, the BBC knows it needs to hook in younger viewers as the traditional TV landscape fragments.

At 33 years old he was one of the youngest senior executives at the BBC and is still within the target demographic for a channel aimed at 25 to 34 year olds.

He took charge of his first channel, UK Play, at 26 and was running BBC Choice, the precursor to BBC Three, before he was 30 years old.

Little Britain
Little Britain was BBC Three's breakthrough hit
He says of himself: "I've always been 35, even when I was 22. Cold Feet spoke to me when I wasn't even in the demographic."

He was responsible for commissioning comedies Little Britain and Nighty Night and dramas Bodies and Casanova and has a budget of more than 97m a year.

His two-and-a-half years at BBC Three have been mixed - a handful of breakout hits are offset by criticisms over the value for money of the channel and sometimes unimpressive ratings.

"There is that worry that the BBC is brilliant at getting kids to watch the BBC or use BBC till the age of eight or 9 and then they bugger off and come back at the age of 34. Channel 4 sort of mops up in that time," he says.

"There is a hope that Three, as it starts to grow, becomes more successful at keeping them."

When you see an American drama on something like probation - it's not real, it's not the type of people you'd ever meet.
Stuart Murphy

One of the tasks for Mr Murphy was in attracting a demographic which is increasingly turning to US imports.

US dramas such as Lost, 24 and CSI are fast becoming ratings juggernauts on British television and, crucially, attracting young audiences who do not traditionally watch the genre.

A recent TV trailer for Channel 4's digital entertainment channel E4 boasts that it is "shamelessly importing cool stuff".

The Simpsons, The OC, Without A Trace and current hit Lost are on the channel, while Five screens the three CSI mega franchises.

'Alternative'

The quality of US drama and comedy has, arguably, never been higher - and a recent BBC report found that 30% of UK audiences for US drama are under 35 years old, compared to British drama which attracts just 21% of the under 35s.

"It's not us versus them. I do feel like we are an alternative," says Mr Murphy of the US versus British drama debate.

Grown Ups
Manchester comedy Grown Ups is the latest sitcom to come out of BBC Three

"I'm not surprised younger audiences love American drama. The cost per episode is right up there.

"So I don't feel in competition with them because in some ways you can't compete, because of the amount of resources they've got."

Mr Murphy says BBC Three's drama, like its comedy, is "uncompromising and real". He says the channel should always be distinctively British - "warm, witty and eccentric".

"When you see an American drama on something like probation - it's not real, it's not the type of people you'd ever meet."

BBC Three currently has a reach of about nine million viewers a week, which puts it ahead of E4 and Sky One and just behind ITV2, and attracts an average audience of 160,000 viewers each night (1900 to 0200).

E4 gets an average of 133,000 in the same time slot, while Sky One attracts 206,000.

With a budget of 97m a year, the cost of the channel was called into question last year in an independent report.

The report's author, Professor Patrick Barwise, said BBC Three and BBC Four offered "fairly good value for money".

Lost cast
The pilot for US drama Lost cost a reported $5m

"It all depends what you want the BBC to be," says Mr Murphy on the question of value for money.

"If you want the BBC to use its licence fee to buy American products and compete against commercial competitors just for American products then you don't need to spend 90m just to get younger audiences.

Comedy hits

"If you want BBC Three to bring on the next generation of young scriptwriters, you definitely do need that money."

"Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," he adds.

When it has worked for BBC Three, it is has been spectacular - Little Britain has been one of the biggest comedies for many years, while Nighty Night has also proved a critical and audience hit.

But crucially that success has been found on BBC One and Two, where the shows have been transferred after a BBC Three debut.

Mr Murphy denies that BBC Three is just a comedy lab for BBC One and Two.

"What was clear six months after we launched was that we were never going to have any real breakthroughs unless we concentrated on a specific genre. And so we absolutely piled into comedy.

I think the BBC would be mad to have me still here in two years' time
Stuart Murphy

"We have had a real run in drama and because the quota is less people don't clock that yet."

"I hope that in 18 months' time people will get the same sense about our drama as they do our comedy - that we do cutting edge British drama."

The channel has also had success with parenting programmes - The House of Tiny Tearaways is a hit on Three - and Mr Murphy says the channel will also focus on a strand of "therapy" programmes.

"In comedy we will keep being the brand leader, in parenting as well. Hopefully in factual, and later drama will start to be up there.

"Even after two-and-a-half years most people don't get the sense we are a multi-genre service."

Mr Murphy says BBC Three is "pedalling downhill" in an effort to build on the momentum it has achieved so far.

"The channel is only two-and-a-half years old and if it was a kid it would still be in nappies. Channel 4 has had 20 years to hone its skills at getting a difficult audience.

"People need to give us a chance."

But even then Mr Murphy did not see himself as part of BBC Three's long-term plans.

"I think the BBC would be mad to have me still here in two years' time," he says.

"BBC Three constantly needs fresh, new blood."


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