The former controller of BBC3 has attacked the decision to slash the channel’s budget and move it online. Zai Bennett, who left the BBC to join Sky Atlantic a month after the plans were announced, called the decision “perverse” and claimed making it online-only is a “smokescreen”.
Speaking at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, Bennett was visibly angry at the state of his old channel: “I thought it was a pretty perverse, odd decision. The BBC is amazing, BBC3 is a stunning channel, it’s completely unique in the ecology of TV and what it does in original British comedy and factual programming, current affairs and documentary. I think TV and online have a symbiotic relationship, it’s not one or the other.”
The new Sky Atlantic controller speculated that the decision was down to manoeuvring by the Corporation as they approach license fee negotiations. “In terms of BBC3 moving online, having its budget obliterated, I think it’s a massive strategic mistake,” he explained. “I think the BBC is on a strategic course for license fee renewal, which isn’t aligned with what its audience requires from the BBC.”
Earlier this year Tony Hall, Director General of the BBC, announced that the budget for BBC3 would be cut from £85 million to around £30 million and that the channel would stop broadcasting on television, becoming an online-only channel available on the BBC iPlayer. The plans are yet to be confirmed by the BBC Trust.
Although clearly still holding affection for BBC3, Bennett expressed doubts about its suitability as an online-only channel accessible through iPlayer. “I think BBC3, when/if it moves online, will still adapt and could be amazing. But the crux of all this is that it’s a £3.5 billion organisation choosing to stop funding programming for a young adult audience that can’t get it anywhere else. That audience does consume television, loves television.”
“Going online is a strategic smokescreen, because all of its content already is online. It’s just a big cut, that’s all it is.”
Defending the channel’s output, which includes shows like Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents and Don’t Tell The Bride, Bennett claimed this mix was vital to introducing young people to subjects they might not choose to watch online: “It’s the perfect expression of a multi-genre channel, and it works. There’s proof on a daily basis that it works. Young people aren’t stupid. They don’t just want to watch a hapless groom try to organise a wedding, they also quite like documentaries and current affairs that are specifically made for them and, in an unmediated way, by them.”
Warming to his theme, Bennett used the recent domestic abuse drama Murdered By My Boyfriend as an example of the challenging, youth oriented television a pared down BBC3 would struggle to produce: “The intention I’m sure is to make shows of the same quality that they currently are, but there will be less of them because they’ll have a lot less money. I’m hoping there will be more. There won’t be as many of them but they’ll keep trying to do them. Young audiences aren’t feckless fools, they want to not just be entertained but challenged and enlightened.”
Ben Cooper, controller of Radio1 and 1Xtra, was the only BBC representative present to defend the plans. As well as pointing out that compared to radio, £30 million “is an awful lot of money,” Cooper claimed the BBC had to prioritise in the face of cuts: “They’ve got to save money. The license fee settlement and DQF savings [Delivering Quality First, the BBC’s controversial economy drive] mean it has got to protect the mothership of BBC One,” he explained. “BBC One is absolutely to the majority of the audience ‘The BBC’. The other thing they’ve got to protect is drama. So that is why that money was taken from the BBC3 budget and given to the mothership BBC3.”
Bennett seemed unimpressed with this reasoning, interjecting that the money was going to “old, white middle class people.”
Only three weeks into his new job as Sky Atlantic controller, Bennett made his first public appearance in the role the previous night at a session on Game of Thrones. Asked by RadioTimes.com what he missed most about BBC3 since leaving, he was in a slightly better mood:
“At Sky Atlantic with Game of Thrones, all the sex and violence is on the screen rather than in the office.”