The BBC is facing a revolt from some of its most popular entertainers after announcing that it plans to close BBC3 and convert the youth channel into a wholly online service.
Comedians Jack Whitehall and Russell Kane were among the channel's stars who spoke out against the decision, due to be confirmed by Lord Hall, BBC Director-General, on Thursday.
Closing the channel behind hits including Gavin & Stacey and Little Britain means that shows such as Don't Tell The Bride and Pramface will only be available through iPlayer, rather than Freeview, satellite or cable.
Lord Hall said further cuts are required to allow the BBC to deliver an additional £100 million of savings. It is still only halfway through a £700 million programme of cuts.
Faced with a choice between closing BBC4, the digital arts and culture channel which costs £49 million a year to run and BBC3, with its £85 million expenditure, the BBC's management opted to axe the much-criticised youth channel, which launched in 2003 and is aimed at audiences aged 16-34.
Politicians welcomed the proposal to close BBC3, notorious for provocatively-titled programmes like F*** Off, I’m Ginger, ahead of vital charter renewal negotiations, set to conclude in 2016, which will set the level of the licence fee.
Turning BBC3 into an online-only brand would help "super-charge" viewing on iPlayer, the BBC argued. The BBC wants to extend the licence fee to cover households where people watch on-demand programmes exclusively on mobile and tablet devices.
The closure must first be approved by the BBC Trust, led by Lord Patten. A previous BBC management decision to close the 6 Music radio station was reversed by the Trust after a lobbying campaign by listeners.
The BBC’s rivals suggested that the closure proposal could be a ploy designed to generate a popular backlash, thereby demonstrating to politicians the difficulty of closing a service once it is established. Lord Hall ruled out closing a channel last October because "the public feel very strongly about all the BBC services."
Comedians given a platform by BBC3 joined viewer protests, which attracted a #SaveBBC3 Twitter hashtag. Little Britain star Matt Lucas proclaimed the channel to be "the home of new comedy and drama".
Russell Kane, who presents Live At The Electric, said the BBC was disenfranchising younger licence fee payers. He told The World At One: "Everyone who puts in £145 for the licence fee should be entertained. I don’t see why it should just be cut because young people have quieter voices in the democratic process?"
Kane said that moving BBC3 to the iPlayer would reduce viewers and hinder audience engagement when it screens political debates. The channel would lack the "rubber stamp of approval" awarded to other services, he said.
Heydon Prowse, of BBC3's hidden-camera political satire series The Revolution Will Be Televised, is launching a social media campaign, via change.org, to save the channel.
Prowse said: "BBC3 does a better job of the BBC's remit to inform, educate and explain than the £22 million it spends on The Voice. Its shows genuinely cater for a young audience in a non-patronising way. The BBC has enough content for middle-class, middle-aged people."
But the decision was more popular in Westminster, where the BBC’s long-term fate will be decided. John Whittingdale MP, Chair of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, said: "BBC3's successful programmes could easily have been developed for BBC2. An awful lot of it is repeats or acquired programming."
He added: "There is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that the channel is reaching the younger audience it was created to serve. It is better for the BBC to concentrate its output on fewer channels and to make sure they are distinctive and of higher quality."
Lord Hall is expected to set out on Thursday the BBC's future plans to reach younger viewers, if his "favoured option", the closure of BBC3 as a television service, is approved.
He faces questions over the genuine savings that closing the broadcast service will deliver if BBC3 programmes are to continue online – transmission costs account for £31 million a year but the programing budget is £58 million.
BBC sources argue that younger viewers no longer watch programmes according to a linear channel schedule and that axing the BBC3 channel will deliver greater value to licence fee payers. However Lord Hall must demonstrate that all licence fee payers are able to access an online-only channel.
Hopes that a 6 Music-style campaign will influence Lord Patten may be slim. BBC3 has had 10 years to establish itself and received £1 billion of licence fee money. A large chunk of its late evening airtime is devoted to repeats of EastEnders and the animated import Family Guy. Its eight-hour schedule on Thursday features just two new programmes.
BBC3 has already experimented with premiering popular comedies, such as Bad Education, starring Jack Whitehall, on iPlayer to a positive response. The channel recorded a bigger audience among 16-24 year-olds than Channel 4 last year and it has faced persistent accusations that its programming is insufficiently distinctive from its commercial competitors.
Viewing figures for Tuesday night showed that hairdressing competition Hair enjoyed 785,000 viewers at 9pm, with 652,000 viewers tuning into EastEnders immediately after and 599,000 people watching the first of two episodes of Family Guy at 11pm.
BBC3: The best and the worst
Hotter Than My Daughter
Atomic Kitten member Liz McClarnon talks to the mother and daughter separately and asks them how they feel about each other's looks and asks the mother if she feels she is hotter than her daughter.
Public service content: 0/10
Snog Marry Avoid?
Atomic Kitten member Jenny Frost transforms the "fakery obsessed" or "slap addicts" into natural beauties by stripping them of their skimpy clothes and layers of make-up and giving them a makeunder instead of a makeover.
Public Service content: 1/10
Coming Of Age
Crude sitcom about sixth-form students: "DK fancies fat girl Sky, but will his unusual seduction techniques – a mix of chocolate, rap and breakdancing – succeed in getting her into bed, or will he have to resort to wooing her with pies?"
Public Service content: 3/10
F*** Off, I'm Ginger
Sister show to F*** Off, I'm Fat and F*** Off, I'm a Hairy Woman examined the life of a ginger haired person and the persecution they face on a daily basis. Kernel of a serious documentary submerged under coarse, eye-catching title.
Public service content: 4/10
Public service content: 10/10
Gavin & Stacey
Devised by James Corden and Ruth Jones, romantic sitcom developed from cult favourite to mainstream success after transferring to BBC2 then BBC1. Fulfilled BBC3 mission to identify and launch new young talent.
Public service content: 8/10
Supernatural flat-share drama series starring Russell Tovey ran for five series, attracting two million viewers to episodes on TV and iPlayer and won Writers' Guild of Great Britain awards. Became BBC America hit and spawned a US Syfy channel remake.
Public service content: 8/10
Don’t Call Me Crazy
Hard-hitting factual series following a year in the lives of inpatients at a teenage mental health unit averaged 1.65 million viewers per episode across TV and iPlayer. Accused of exploitation by some campaigners but also won praised for unflinching depiction of institutionalised life.