Stuart Murphy: My plan to make the BBC hip

The Government is considering fresh plans for a new BBC youth channel; the prospective head of the channel describes what the corporation has in mind for BBC 3
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The Independent Online

I went down with flu last week. So did my team – just to celebrate. After two and a half months of intensive, exhausting work, radically rethinking our proposals for BBC 3, we can now sneeze in harmony. Fitting, perhaps, since we caught a corporate cold when we submitted the first proposals earlier this year. After some months of deliberation and consultation, the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, told us in September that she had not been convinced by our arguments and asked us to have a re-think. She bought the principle of an innovative and intelligent BBC channel aimed at young adults, but we hadn't made the grade.

All of us were gutted. The press gloated. It's not that I'd banked on instant approval, nor that I wasn't used to press criticism. Throughout the year, BBC Choice's shows were picked up on in the press, which is fair game. I have been trying to make difficult topics work on television and commissioned Sex, Warts and All, a deliberate "Ohmigod" series filmed behind the scenes at an STD clinic. The idea was that viewers would be almost unwittingly educated about sexually transmitted diseases, while watching the TV with their hands in front of their face. It worked and rated, but we were hammered for gratuitous shock tactics, which missed the point completely.

With hindsight and a lot of soul-searching, I think the DCMS was right not to sign off the previous channel. There were good elements, but the channel was too briefly explained, too entertainment-obsessed, too safe and just not distinctive enough. I hate to admit it, but we (senior management, the governors and I) hadn't got it right.

Many of the target audience, the nine million 25–34-year-olds, find the BBC and the idea of public-service broadcasting if not a complete turn-off, then certainly not a turn-on. Let's face it: the corporation has not exactly been known for its youth credentials, though – thank Greg – it's changing. I once mentioned Vic Reeves in a BBC meeting, and someone asked who she was. The BBC traditionally appeals to an older, middle-class, white, Southern audience. That is still an important part of the BBC's audience, but it's a world away from the audience we need BBC 3 to reach.

The BBC is not alone in misreading and under-serving the needs of young adults. The commercial sector is under-serving them by building channels on American imports, music or entertainment. Some great stuff, but no news, no documentaries, no original culture. Little original drama. Little home-grown scripted comedy. We researched whether the audience would watch this stuff if we provided it in a way they found relevant; they said they were after something more stimulating, multi-genre, covering current affairs, news, education, social action, music and arts, as well as entertainment and drama, with just a hint of darts. OK, one of the above is a lie, but the point is that the new BBC 3 came out of that research. The majority of its programmes (80 per cent) will be made specifically for the channel, and 90 per cent will be made in the UK.

Unlike any other digital channel, BBC3 is meant to be a hotbed for new talent. Our plans for new-talent initiatives involve setting up national schemes to bring on new sitcom writers, new film-makers, new comedians and new presenters. And we've committed ourselves to making a fifth of our programmes interactive. It's a big risk and the one that most gives me night sweats, but the channel needs (and has been designed this time round) to be all about taking risks.

Which brings me to what may seem the biggest risk – placing news and current affairs at the heart of BBC 3. Straight up, as they say where I'm from. The BBC admitted this week that it is spectacularly failing to reach younger audiences with news and current affairs, and that it needs to put something between Newsround and Newsnight that isn't "Newssquare".

11 September was a turning-point for me. Unlike at other digital channels, on BBC Choice we cleared the schedules that night to cover the story in a different way. What we did then shows how BBC 3 might have responded to a major story. The channel started covering the story online immediately, just after 2pm, and within minutes put out a news-alert e-mail. That was followed up with regular messages until 7pm, which was an effective way to disseminate the news, given that the news servers were slowed by the number of people accessing BBC News sites.

Extended TV news bulletins began on BBC Choice and were scheduled in most programme junctions. At 5pm we commissioned a special programme, using a montage of images, interviews, unseen footage and scrolling captions. It offered a radically different approach from the coverage on other channels, with no reporter tying it together, only music and reportage. Online, the channel deepened coverage with audio and video, and on TV certain programmes were dropped from the channel that evening. No other digital channel aimed at the same audience did anything like that – most US shows ran as normal.

On 11 October, we transmitted America One Month on: a 60 seconds special in peak time at 9pm, again something no other channel aimed at the same audience would do. The programme traced the emotional journey of young Americans and canvassed the views of middle America in Pennsylvania. And we produced a one-hour special War, Do or Die: a 60 seconds special, presented by Jeremy Vine, giving 12 participants the tiniest taste of the realities of war on a military survival course, with contributions from refugees, war reporters, a former SAS soldier and military experts. The BBC then exposed them to a gas attack and showed them unseen footage of real conflicts. It felt like an appropriate way to bring the themes home to a cynical and savvy TV audience. And it worked. The reaction was amazing.

I was determined to avoid at one extreme the tacky boobs-and-bums approach of many entertainment channels, but, just as important for me, BBC 3 has to avoid what the BBC in the past excelled at – transmitting over-earnest TV watched only by the likes of Ab Fab's Saffy. Our target audience expects any channel to feel mixed. White, black and Asian viewers can sniff out tokenism and bias at 50 yards. So BBC 3 should feel mixed: one commitment is that we'll transmit 50 hours a year of music and arts and emphasise events and series that celebrate multicultural Britain.

I hope it is signed off this time. I'm part of the Jekyll and Hyde generation at which BBC 3 is aimed – half-adult, half-kid, dealing with mortgages and parenting, like a man in his teens: required to mature but desperate to regress. I really need those 3 cheers.