BBC3. Those four digits have come to stand for everything that is wrong with British television. To hear them is to experience waking nightmares of Stacey Dooley’s blank stare; Jack Whitehall’s cut-and-paste topical gags; Dawn Porter doing something underwhelming on an open-top bus; and the endless horror of Will Mellor’s very existence.
In its 16 years, BBC3 gave Russell Howard’s Good News more seasons than the Sopranos. It gave class-fascist Lee Nelson his own series, and then commissioned another one in spite of the astonishing level of critical hatred for the first. When Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents finally ran its course, they made Snow, Sex and Suspicious Parents. And then Festivals, Sex and Suspicious Parents. They’ve been consistently accused of dumbing down our culture, and even BBC stalwarts like John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman have laid into it. And not because all those endless Family Guy repeats are fucking with their sleeping pattern.
But yesterday, it was announced that BBC3 will be shut down and moved exclusively online next year, as part of the Director-General Tony Hall’s money-saving plans. However, the fact that the channel pulls in decent ratings (though there's talk of the overheads no longer justifying the viewership) suggests that this is a decision that's about more than just audience figures and finances. You can't help but wonder if, actually, this is about integrity, and whether BBC3 has become an undefendable embarrassment.
Even from an objective viewpoint, it seems like the right thing to do. The channel’s name is far too sullied to ever really be taken seriously. The lingering ghost of Two Pints of Lager… means that none of the BBC’s comedy big hitters would ever be seen dead on there. The presence of Iannucci, Coogan or Aherne isn’t felt on BBC3; it’s a student union comedy night run by spiky-haired man-children who wear dinner jackets over T-shirts and tell jokes about "snapping their banjo-strings". The channel isn't just synonymous with crude, insipid comedy. Its documentaries are banal and wafer-thin and you get the impression that its dramas, in the shape of Torchwood and Being Human, are primarily watched by people who go to autograph fairs.
There was some enjoyment in watching Freaky Eaters or Undercover Princes or Snog, Marry, Avoid. But it was only ever Kebab Television – sickly, unenlightening stuff that occasionally provided a bit of guilty visceral amusement, which is fine in itself, but it was hardly like they had Nick Broomfield or Chris Morris or anything with any kind of weight to balance it out. And when one of those shows became a hit, they’d either try to string it out for as many series as they could, or try to replicate it elsewhere with some tiny detail changed (see Undercover Princesses).
BBC3 was an Escher painting of shitty ideas, presented by dullards and sold to a public who asked for a chicken shish and were given dog meat. We should all be very glad it's gone.
Of course, there are some deluded fuckers who want to save it. Why? Well, they fall into two categories: people whose work will be directly affected by the decision, and people who will jump on any hashtag they can.
Just because some TV or film doesn't fall within the tiny purview of your own cultural gaze, doesn't mean you should blind it. #SaveBBC3— Russell Kane (@russell_kane) March 5, 2014
You can’t really blame the "talent" for not wanting to lose their main outlet, in much the same way that you couldn't castigate adult babies for not wanting to give up their bottles. Russell Kane has been particularly vocal about the closure, as have Jack Whitehall and Greg James, who described the decision as "a load of balls". But these victims of Tony Hall's cultural imperialism should probably take a look back and remember that BBC3 basically replaced BBC Choice, and that the BBC will probably always have a place for them, as long as people continue to find jokes about farting in the bath funny.
The death of BBC3 won't stunt opportunity for young comedians, like many of its stars are saying, as the BBC basically has a mandate to provide opportunities for them. And moving it online isn't part of some war against the young, either. Perhaps there would have been a bigger uproar if most of its audience didn't watch it on iPlayer already but let's face it: you'd probably be doing more damage to young people by allowing it to continue.
Killing BBC3 isn’t going to change anything. The seeds have long been sown, and I’m sure – in a few months – we’ll see the launch of a new BBC entertainment channel that’ll talk a big, brave, Reithian game, but merely end up, once again, trying to replicate the success of The Inbetweeners by allowing Edinburgh Fringe hits to write jokes about going bald.
What we really need is not only for BBC3 to die a quick and silent death, but for a total change of attitude in what the commissioners – and the public – want from their comedy and entertainment. Look at the BBC’s new comedy output and you’ll soon realise that what you’re seeing is an astonishing lack of imagination and ambition – a misguided relationship between the public and producers that's left the future of British comedy looking incredibly bleak. What the fuck is Miranda?
To the public who say they want to save it, I'd ask one question: Have you ever really loved anything on BBC3? Has anything they've programmed ever managed to change the way you view your life, or had you wishing – feeling, even – that you knew the characters in real life, as great TV often can? Because I'm willing to bet it hasn't. Sure, you might have that one show you kinda like to watch when you get home from a midweek pub session, but in 16 years – and after the millions and millions of pounds spent – is a few thousand slightly lonely pissheads falling asleep in front of F**k Off! I'm a Hairy Woman! really enough to justify saving BBC3?
I haven’t watched Bad Education. People have said it’s good, but is it "not as good as Teachers, but good!"? Or is it actually good? I feel the same way about Pramface and Uncle and most things they've done, apart from the stuff that just looks irredeemably shit. In a world where people have less and less leisure time, people should be making TV that you have to watch. Programmes where the synopsis alone will give you the impression that somebody’s going to laugh at you for not having seen it. Programmes that matter.
American TV does that, with a myriad of strange and dangerous programming that touches on history, culture, fashion, politics, crime, sociology, sex and the human condition. And the BBC does a lot of it, too. But BBC3 is just cultural stodge. Unimportant, uninteresting entertainment that nobody will notice when it’s gone.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive