BBC's digital channels are 'poor value'

The digital television channels BBC3 and BBC4 are "poor value for money" because so few people watch them, according to a government report.

The digital television channels BBC3 and BBC4 are "poor value for money" because so few people watch them, according to a government report.

The review says that BBC3 is operating in a "creative straitjacket" and that BBC4 makes too many programmes which "virtually no one watches". It concludes that the BBC channels are failing to persuade viewers to switch to digital television - a crucial element of the Government's plans to turn off the analogue signal in 2012.

Patrick Barwise, professor of management and marketing at London Business School, who was commissioned by the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, to review the BBC's £171m digital television services, calls on BBC3 and BBC4 to broaden their appeal. BBC3 costs £99m a year to run, while BBC4 costs £35m annually.

But he praises the BBC's digital tots' channel CBeebies as "a triumph", and recognises the children's channel CBBC as "highly distinctive", if overly reliant on "relentlessly youthful" presenters and sometimes patronising in its approach to serious subjects.

Professor Barwise concedes that BBC3 has fulfilled its "very tough" remit of producing innovative public service programmes aimed at 25 to 34-year-olds. He praises comedy shows such as Little Britain and the animation Monkey Dust, as well as the parenting programme Little Angels and the BBC's coverage of the Glastonbury festival.

But he adds that BBC3 has failed to "reconnect" its target younger viewers, who are only tuning in to watch spin-offs of mainstream shows such as EastEnders and Fame Academy. He blames BBC3's low viewing figures - the channel is watched by around 4 million people a week - on an overemphasis on targeting 25 to 34-year-olds. "Targeting the 25-34s so obsessively seems to go beyond a helpful guideline and to have become a creative straitjacket," Professor Barwise says. People in this age group are educated, like to discuss what they watch with friends and colleagues and should not be stereotyped and patronised - "assuming they are all celebrity-obsessed clubbers with the attention span of a gnat", he adds.

The report concludes that BBC3 should move away from a focus on age and concentrate instead on "edgy comedy, new talent and innovation". It recommends that the channel should drop its youth-oriented news bulletin at 7pm, which is currently in competition with Channel 4 News. BBC4's news programme, The World, is "not working" and should be revamped or replaced by another factual programme, the report says. While Professor Barwise recognises the success of BBC4's recent coverage of the Proms, he finds that "in general people do not want to sit in front of the television watching a concert".

BBC4 has successfully positioned itself as "a place to think" and exemplifies the BBC's "traditional, self-confident public service values", says the review. But Professor Barwise raises concerns about the channel's "very low" viewing figures - attracting only 1.4 million viewers a week. In particular, he says that "BBC4 should be more selective about showing arts and other programmes which virtually no one watches".

The report concludes that BBC4 should broaden its appeal, which it admits would be difficult on so small a budget.

Professor Barwise suggests that within three years, between 35 and 40 per cent of adults with access to digital television should watch BBC3 for at least 15 minutes a week, and between 25 and 30 per cent should watch BBC4.

At present BBC3 is watched for at least one continuous 15-minute period each week by 7 per cent of homes in Britain, compared to the 83.7 per cent of homes who watch BBC1 and 67 per cent who watch BBC2. BBC4 reaches 2.1 per cent of homes. Among the households that have multi-channel television, BBC3 is watched in 12.6 per cent, BBC4 in 3.7 per cent, BBC1 in 79.8 per cent and BBC2 in 57.3 per cent.

Ms Jowell said Professor Barwise's findings would prove "illuminating" to the Government's review of the BBC's charter. The BBC's governors have until the end of November to respond to the recommendations. Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, promised yesterday to "carefully consider the substance of the review, together with the interesting recommendations and criticisms he has made".

The hits

Little Britain, BBC3

David Walliams and Matt Lucas's portrayal of British eccentricity has been picked up by BBC2.

Glastonbury, BBC3

Unprecedented access by BBC3 to the music festival.

Burn It, BBC3

Manchester-based drama about three men who refuse to take on responsibilities.

The Alan Clark Diaries, BBC4

John Hurt, who played the Tory minister, was shocked at the tiny budget but this adaptation introduced BBC4 to large ratings.

News at 7pm, BBC3

Instead of competing with other channels, BBC3 should ditch its youth-oriented news.

Fame Academy spin-off, BBC3, left

The inclusion on BBC3 of 137 hours of "Fame Academy" spin-off content "masks BBC3's genuine achievements in innovation".

Liquid News, BBC3

The news show, presented by Claudia Winckelman, below, was dropped this year.

The World, BBC4

Audiences are minuscule, with just 17,000 viewers .

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