Now we are Three

The BBC's £80m-a-year youth network rarely attracts more than a few hundred thousand viewers. A year into its life, BBC3's controller Stuart Murphy tells Ian Burrell how he squares EastEnders spin-offs with public-service TV
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The Independent Online

"Yeah but... no but... ohmigod... shut up!!!" might not seem the most persuasive of retorts to those that see BBC3 as a self-indulgent waste of £80m of licence-payers' money. But the words of the almost incomprehensible tracksuit-wearing teenage girl Vicky Pollard have proved a surprisingly eloquent justification for the existence of the Corporation's youngest television channel, which will be celebrating its first birthday next month.

Pollard, played by Matt Lucas, has helped make the comedy Little Britain into BBC3's first real breakout success. Which must come as a relief to Stuart Murphy, 32, the BBC's youngest network controller, who has spent the past 11 months trying to convince Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, that the channel is worth persevering with.

The minister rejected BBC3's initial blueprint after being unconvinced that the network would be sufficiently ground-breaking to justify the public expense. The station's future is still under review and Murphy is currently drawing up a document for Jowell, laying out its achievements in its first year. "I've had a couple of conversations with her and she seems great, an intelligent woman and very supportive," he claims. "Her main thrust is that you've got to take creative risks, which is absolutely what I'm about and what I get off on." Murphy's own assessment of his first year isn't entirely convincing. "I think it has been good actually... erm... well not good actually, I think it has been really good," he says.

He faces up to his difficult task from his glass-walled office on the sixth floor of Television Centre, where he works alongside the controllers of the more established channels and Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television.

Murphy can point out that his schedule of original programmes has landed 13 television awards and a further 24 nominations. But the channel has had more than its share of teething problems and Murphy was forced to overhaul that schedule completely only months after launching because viewers complained it was a muddle. He now has four million people tuning in every week, with a larger audience in the target age group of 25 to 34 than the rival E4 (which, it must be remembered, is paid for only by those who watch it). BBC3 attracts a 1.3 per cent audience share, rising to 2 per cent among its target age group.

Nevertheless, the only four programmes on the channel to have achieved audiences of more than 700,000 last year were EastEnders, Absolutely Fabulous, Fame Academy and 24 - none of them a BBC3 product, and all intended as bait to lure viewers to the fledgling network. "It was always going to be a really difficult channel to launch," admits Murphy. "It's going into a market where the commercial model for digital channels is single genre and ours is multi-genre."

When Jowell makes her appraisal, she may well conclude that BBC3 has been rather more successful in some genres than others in achieving its stated ambition of reaching, "discerning, media-savvy young viewers."

Comedy has given BBC3 its highest profile. The hidden-camera show 3 Non Blondes failed to impress critics but is soon to be screened by a leading American network and even prompted an enquiry from Jennifer Lopez, who wanted to buy the US rights. Starring three virtual unknown black female comedians - Tameka Empson, Jocelyn Jee Esien and Ninia Benjamin - the programme has already transferred to BBC2 and BBC America and was used by Gavyn Davies, the BBC chairman, as the main illustration on the contents page of the Corporation's latest annual report.

Murphy commissioned Little Britain, which started as a BBC Radio 4 programme, after working with Lucas and his comedy partner David Walliams on Rock Profiles, where they parodied the likes of Abba, Elton John and The Chemical Brothers. The controller, who describes the show as "The Two Ronnies on acid" with "thoroughly-modern characters", is "really pleased" with Little Britain's popularity (it recently attracted an audience of 460,000 to BBC3). "Relief isn't really the word," Murphy says, "because that implies that I was absolutely on the floor. The channel is bigger than just one programme. But every channel wants a Little Britain."

But there have been plenty of flops as well. When BBC3 launched, the former breakfast television presenter Johnny Vaughan was set to be the face of the new channel. Six months later Johnny Vaughan Tonight was axed. Murphy also decided to drop a show by the comedian Dom Joly, who had been the source of high hopes after being poached from Channel 4, where he had built a large following for Trigger Happy TV. "If you say you are going to set up a channel taking creative risks then an inevitable part is that you've got to allow failure," says Murphy.

Current affairs has been another headache for the young station, which is watched, its controller admits, by "a news-avoiding audience".

BBC3's approach to news is epitomised by 60 Seconds, a bulletin in which the global events of the days are dealt with inside a minute. The journalists end their despatch with a demeaning plea to viewers to keep tuned for the ensuing sitcom: "Stay with us for Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps". Perhaps with an eye on Ms Jowell's review of the BBC's digital services, Murphy is re-casting his channel's approach to news. He has appointed a new head of current affairs and is to launch what he hopes will be a more youthful version of BBC2's Newsnight in the form of a half-hour version of The 7 O'Clock News. Joly is even being brought back in his former guise as a correspondent to present a heavyweight programme on international political leaders.

In what appears to be a reflection of the channel's need to grow up and demonstrate responsibility, Murphy has commissioned a series of programmes that highlight the problems faced by young parents. Murphy, who is married with two children, is also driven by social conscience after growing up in fairly modest circumstances in Leeds (his father was a mechanic and his mother a secretary). "I was confused why people like me with my voice didn't appear on TV. I'm a white male who went to Cambridge so if I feel like that, God knows how a disenfranchised 28-year-old bloke who's black and living in inner-city Birmingham feels," he says.

That may explain a bold decision to hang the network's winter schedule around a series of nine documentaries aimed at challenging stereotypes of Africa. Murphy wants a "less simplistic" approach to coverage of a continent with 690 million people. "You always see a slow-motion sunset, you always see a giraffe, you always see little black kids waving at the camera. You never see little white kids waving at the camera. Think about the subliminal messages that is sending out," he says. "You always see pot bellies and kids starving. That's one of the truths of Africa but it's not the truth of Africa." So the series will feature images of black motorcycle gangs and stories of would-be African models getting eating disorders as they pursue Western notions of beauty.

This is the ethos of BBC3, says Murphy, to be challenging and to break the mould. "BBC3 is about a mindset, it's about people who want British intelligent TV that reflects and responds to their life. They don't want stuff [imported] from abroad and they don't want repeats from years ago," he says. "They are coming to Three because they want something different."