Equal treatment or repeats and Liquid News ad infinitum

campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 29 May 2003 08:00AM

OK, you all saw and said it before I did. I was willing to give it a chance -- the BBC, I mean -- to prove you all wrong. That BBC Three wasn't a staggering waste of taxpayers' money and a blatant, cynical attempt to steal share from ITV2, E4 and Sky's channels, writes Ian Darby.

I should have known it from the so-called launch night. Johnny Vaughan, now sadly lethargic, popping up between a load of lame old turns we could have been watching on BBC Two.

And, of course, the scandal is that all this is backed by a programming budget of close to £100m. To put this in context, the terrestrial channel Five, the Campaign media brand of the year in 2002, has a programming budget of £159 million.

Regardless of any commercial intrusions, the BBC is committing an act of daylight robbery on us taxpayers. For its £159m, Five has given us more arts coverage than the other terrestrial channels, 'CSI', 'Boomtown', a half-hour news bulletin and 'Home & Away'. On the other hand, it seems that BBC Three has given us more repeats than UK Gold. Repeated, or pre-shown, 'EastEnders', 'EastEnders Revealed' and 'Liquid News' three times a night.

BBC Three is not fulfilling its remit. In asking the BBC to resubmit proposals for BBC Three, the culture secretary, Tessa Jowell, demanded more news, current affairs, education and the arts. And the channel set out to be "substantially different" from those already on offer. And it is. But only by virtue of being so pile-achingly poor. Maybe the BBC thought nobody would notice how bad BBC Three really is among the other dross but what it seems to have forgotten is that multichannel is entering something of a golden age.

While the Beeb may feel it can crack open the bubbly at last week's news of achieving, wait for it, a 0.5% increase in share among 25- to 34-year-olds against that registered by BBC Choice, the achievements of its commercial rivals are more notable. BBC Three caters for an audience well served by E4 and Sky One, and ITV2 has stolen even more of its thunder with large audiences for 'I'm a Celebrity Live', interactive 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' and Champions League games.

So, while the Competition Commission plays hardball with ITV, let's have the same rules for the BBC. It's hard to see the government limiting the corporation's imaginative interpretation of "public service". However, the Conservatives' taskforce, headed by David Elstein, the former Five chief executive, provides some hope.

The Broadcasting Advisory Group will draw up proposals on the BBC's future role, structure and funding. And while David Beckham's crimper has more chance of becoming the prime minister than Iain Duncan-Smith, we can hope that pressure from the opposition will lead to a tougher line on the BBC from the government. Or it's another eight years of 'Liquid News'.

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This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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