Media: All about ... The future of BBC3

How long can the BBC justify the channel's existence, Alasdair Reid asks.

Bosses at BBC3 have clearly signed the wrong Allen. A couple of weeks ago, they announced they'd enticed the edgy-but-cute, 50s fashion revivalist Lily Allen to be the face of BBC3. When, in fact, judging by the internet traffic generated by last week's news stories concerning the channel, they should have signed up her dad, Keith. Or, to be precise, her dad in pantomime villain mode, as exemplified by his rendering of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the current TV revival of Robin Hood.

We can appreciate why this might be confusing. After all, Robin Hood is a BBC1 programme. Granted, it's unashamedly trashy: yet it's too mainstream for BBC3, a channel whose schedule revolves around Tittybangbang, celebrity hairdressing and shows encouraging men to talk about their penises.

The bottom line, though, is the notion that, much like the Sheriff of Nottingham, BBC3 is the one we all love to hate. Even Members of Parliament have begun to suspect that its existence may be nothing short of a national disgrace.

We know this because a report, published last week by John Whittingdale, the chairman of the House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee, was scathing of the BBC's decision to sack almost 2,000 members of staff across the corporation rather than, as had been urged, ditching BBC3.

This, its critics say, is the BBC at its most petulant. Having been forced to re-balance its books after a below-inflation licence fee award, BBC strategists have chosen the option they hope will play up the corporation's victim status in the most outrageous fashion possible.

Meanwhile, the decision to try to defend the indefensible (BBC3, as some see it), has only resulted in a renewed determination in political circles to revisit an idea that has been floating about for a decade or so - the "Arts Council of the Air".

If the BBC can no longer be trusted to guarantee the future of public service broadcasting, then other broadcasters should be given the chance to pitch suitable ideas - and if they measure up, they should have access to a new pot of funding diverted from the licence fee. In turn, the BBC should be made to scale back its activities in areas where commercial broadcasters are active - such as cookery, lifestyle, property and gameshows.

Heard it before? Well, perhaps. And in all this kerfuffle, it almost went unnoticed that the analogue switch-off started recently in that most futuristic of places - Whitehaven in Cumbria.

1. BBC3 (or more accurately, its predecessor, BBC Choice) was the UK's first digital-only TV channel when it launched in September 1998. It has, however, been dogged by controversy. Most notably, plans for its evolution from Choice to 3 were initially blocked by the then culture secretary Tessa Jowell in 2001 because its proposed programming was not sufficiently different to content already being made by the commercial sector.

2. BBC strategists have always argued it is duty-bound to offer a range of digital channels if it is to make sense of its lead role in creating digital Britain. BBC quality, it argues, will ensure older and poorer viewers are encouraged to take the plunge and buy digital equipment before the completion of analogue switch-off by 2012. This may be true, but from a BBC perspective, it's an alluringly convenient truth. Managers at the BBC have sought to ensure the corporation's survival (and growth) by competing aggressively in the great digital media land grab.

3. BBC3's primary role has been as an incubator for new series, particularly in comedy. The BBC has been less successful, however, in using its digital-only channels (as ITV and Channel 4 do) to extend existing mainstream programme franchises - despite the relative success of programmes such as Doctor Who Confidential.

4. Surprisingly, it is the top-rated station in the multi-channel universe (measured like-for-like over its 7pm to midnight transmission hours). In the year to date, it has averaged a rating of 0.7, equivalent to a share of all broadcast of 1.96 per cent. It's just ahead of ITV2 (0.6 rating), E4 and Sky One.

5. The recently announced staff cuts will primarily affect the BBC's news and current affairs output on BBC1 and BBC2. These are not arenas in which it generally faces a great deal of competition from the commercial sector (except perhaps for the News at Ten), but they are central to the corporation's remit as a public service institution.

WHAT IT MEANS FOR ...

VIEWERS

- Large numbers of licence fee payers may be upset by the BBC's posturing - but, equally, they know that their feelings are largely ignored. The BBC calculates (quite rightly up to now) that no government (of whatever political persuasion) will have the courage to effect major reform.

- The BBC may whinge these days about death by a thousand cuts, but it still remains a £3 billion multimedia corporation.

ADVERTISERS

- Questions over the future of BBC3 (and BBC4, for that matter) are good news for advertisers. As Steve Bignell, the head of TV at MediaCom, puts it: "When the BBC is weak, ITV tends to do well, and that's good for advertisers. The BBC's troubles also put ITV's multi-channel strategy into perspective. ITV now has strong brands in this space. The knack is to learn how to deliver different things for different people at different times."

RIVAL BROADCASTERS

- The longer the BBC persists in misreading the public and political mood of this country, the more likely it becomes that we'll see a radical realignment of the UK's broadcast economy. Channel 4 will be particularly interested in creaming off some of the licence fee via an "Arts Council of the Air." And who knows, perhaps ITV could even be persuaded to start making children's programmes once more.