The BBC's decision to close its sole youth-focused TV channel, BBC Three, is both depressing and divisive. Depressing because it represents yet another attack on a generation that is already facing the sharp end of austerity policies with high youth unemployment, welfare cuts, the prospect of huge debts for those who choose to go to university and the lack of affordable housing which will now prevent millions of young people from leaving the family home.
It is divisive because one reaction to the announcement has been to argue that either BBC Three or BBC Four, aimed at an older audience, should have been shut. In fact we should be arguing that the Corporation should maintain programming and close neither service. If the Corporation needs to make savings, perhaps it might re-consider Jeremy Clarkson's salary (£14 million last year) or re-think its investment in capital projects (like the £100 million written off in its failed digital media initiative) and its compensation to senior managers (£25million was spent on severance payments to top staff in only three years up to the end of 2012).
The BBC's cost-cutting realpolitik is the result of its acceptance of a licence fee freeze back in 2010, engineered by the Chancellor, George Osborne, as a necessary price to pay for public service broadcasting during a recession (these cuts, quite obviously, were not applied to the ever-expanding BSkyB). This led to a 16% cut in the Corporation's budget, much to the delight of its commercial rivals who had long been lobbying against the BBC's 'grip' on the UK media market.
So the one TV channel dedicated to the 16-24 demographic is to be sacrificed on the altar of rationalisation. Except that the director general, Tony Hall, is now claiming that this is less a cut than a fantastic opportunity to 'reinvent a space for young people on the iPlayer that will be bold, innovative and distinctive.' According to Hall, this will be a relatively painless exercise because BBC Three's audience is already the most connected and digital-savvy and will be able seamlessly to switch to on-demand platforms. Yet even if Hall is right that 25% of viewing by 16-24 year olds is via catch-up services (actually, Ofcom in its comprehensive 2013 Communications Market Report puts this figure at 13%), this still leaves three-quarters of young people with the prospect of a massive interruption to their viewing habits.
It is part of a more widespread assumption that is guiding media policymakers and executives that the whole country has moved online and is committed to an electronic diet of tablets, mobile phones and laptops. Yet 20% of households are still not connected to the internet and, as Tony Hall, admitted, the vast majority of viewing remains linear. Meanwhile, far from rejecting TV as some kind of analogue amusement, 16-24 year olds continue to consume on average 2.4 hours a day, exactly the same as in 2004 and are, according to Ofcom's research, the single most positive demographic inside the overall TV audience.
I am not an avid viewer of BBC Three but then, as someone well outside its target audience, I am not supposed to be. But I have seen enough to know that while it is not all Bafta-winning quality, neither is the output on the channels to which its best programmes are now to be moved, notably BBC1. A space for risk-taking and content which is never likely to sit comfortably with older viewers (and commissioners) is to sacrificed for mass-market content that makes its easier for the BBC to justify its relevance to the whole of the population. We often hear about the political disengagement of young people but then what are they to make of the fact that, while BBC Three is closing, a recent comprehensive study of BBC News output found that it is largely pro-business, anti-European and dominated by Labour and Conservative politicians? The fact that Russell Brand's condemnation of the current electoral system and his call for revolution has now been seen almost ten million times on You Tube should perhaps signify to BBC bosses the potential of a younger and angrier audience.
Far from protecting BBC Four, the closure of BBC Three will make it easier to shut down any outlets that do not demonstrate an immediate and demonstrable 'value' to the BBC's core audience. How secure will any of the BBC's local or minority interest channels now feel, including 6 Music and Asian Network whose future was in doubt only a few years ago. Those stations were saved by angry listeners and an organised campaign. Judging by the response to a Change.org petition, we are likely to see the same level of opposition to the closure of BBC Three. This is what reminds us that public service broadcasting has, at least occasionally, to involve the public.