Do 16-34 year olds still watch terrestrial TV? More importantly, will they still be watching in a year’s time when BBC 3 re-launches as a linear station? Six years ago, the youth orientated channel switched to digital-only as part of a £100 million cost cutting measure. Since then they have produced a couple of runaway successes such as the all-conquering Fleabag, hence the decision to have another crack at broadening their appeal to a rapidly dwindling youth market where TV sets are a rarity and scheduling anathema.
Once it is up and running again in January will the channel be able to fulfil its remit by appealing to a broad spectrum of younger viewers most of whom have already switched to subscription platforms? By clinging on to the anachronistic licence fee that no right minded millennial, let alone Gen-Z would go near given the choice, Aunty has already alienated the very audience it is desperately trying to woo. So what of the channel’s content; is there enough there to grab attention away from Netflix et al?
The current schedule doesn’t inspire confidence with an all too familiar mix of garish reality shows, social justice hammer blows and Stacy Dooley. The target audience appears to be almost exclusively urban kids with attitude. Core Reithian values have been jettisoned in the usual rush to stay relevant. But chasing after fickle fashion, ‘edginess’ and the same old progressive orthodoxies doesn’t make you relevant, it makes you a slave. Surely the job of a public service broadcaster is to buck trends and rise above the limits of the market place.
Yes, BBC3 has produced some thought provoking shows that deal in worthy causes and Normal People really struck a chord with younger viewers but rather than broaden its appeal further, producer Ash Atalla has revealed that the channel intends to narrow its approach by focusing instead on issues that ‘concern young people’, namely ‘gender, race, sexuality, identity and the environment.’
But does Atalla honestly think kids lie awake at night worrying about gender pronouns? Aren’t these just the same old shibboleths that concern the sort of middle aged producers who see the entirety of human existence through the boringly reductive prism of immutable characteristics and environmental catastrophe.
Producers working to this sort of an agenda know full well that young people are already bombarded by this stuff day in day out, not only from other BBC channels but from every HR department and university campus in the land. The last thing kids want as they slob out in front of the telly of an evening – if indeed that’s what they still do – is yet more proselytising progressivism.
The BBC’s obsession with politicising every inch of output is not only insulting to those of us who prefer content that also entertains and informs it is also deeply demoralising for younger audiences who long to escape the prison of their own circumstances. Most of the kids I meet are bored stiff by the narrow obsessions of our new cultural overlords. It’s also unforgivably lazy on the part of programme makers who simply reflect kids’ lives back at them rather than introducing them to big ideas that broaden their understanding of the world. Boxing young people into neat little comfort zones may make producers feel relevant but it does nothing for those looking to be inspired.
The good news is Gen Zs appear to be rebelling against the chilling conformity of identity-based programming where bludgeoning viewers with political messaging is the only narrative in town. According to Eric Kaufman, professor of politics at Birkbeck, University of London, young people under the age of 22 tend to be more conservative and less politically correct than voters aged between 22 and 39.
In what he refers to as the Jordan Peterson effect, Zoomers are turning to countercultural voices on social media and YouTube rather than relying on the mainstream media. They relish long form open debate and see the narrowing of creative freedom as a millennial dysfunction. When it comes to content Gen Zs are more open-minded and don’t take kindly to patronising producers lecturing them on what to think.
BBC3 is in a unique position to move youth programming beyond the narrow confines of progressivism and edgy urban cool. There’s a rich panoply of culture out there just waiting to be shared. Why should youth programming be rooted in geographical identity when great art speaks to universal truths that surpass place and time?As Netflix and Amazon Prime drift inexorably towards bland, progressive conformity, do we really need our national broadcaster to follow suit?
By returning to terrestrial TV BBC3 will once again be limited by the need to fill a strict scheduling timetable. Wouldn’t it be better to remain online where programme makers can afford to take their time and produce the sort of quality output not found on any other platform? In the end, isn’t that the only justification for charging young people a license fee?
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