MEDIA: Perspective - Play UK's ambition was always too big for its capabilities

In the week that the Independent Television Commission finally received bids for the digital terrestrial space vacated by ITV Digital, there was an even sadder sight than ITV bothering to bid for the licences after making such a buggers' muddle of DTT.

The announcement that Play UK, UKTV's comedy and music channel, is to close was hardly surprising, but is symbolic of the current malaise in digital programming. While the BBC and ITV rival bids will offer the usual digital channels sans premium paid-for options, Play UK has been ploughing the brave furrow of targeting the elusive 16- to 34-year-old male audience with a mixture of original music programming and bought-in comedy.

Bravery that, in hindsight, has been totally miss-placed. Play's challenge, tough at the best of times, has been made impossible by the collapse of ITV Digital and the continued failure of Barb to get its house in order.

Launched in 1998 as UK Play, the channel has consistently failed to attract even meagre audiences. Its current star attractions, The Fast Show and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, pull in just 50,000. Its share of viewing has halved in a year to a paltry 0.1 per cent.

But this shouldn't gloss over the fact that Play tried to do something more ambitious than any of UKTV's other channels. While reruns of classics such as The Office or League of Gentlemen can become tiresome the tenth time around, its commissioning of quality music strands, including talent such as The Prodigy and DJ Judge Jules, wouldn't look out of place on MTV or Kiss, but pulled in a fraction of the audience.

While UKTV was over-ambitious in its projections and stands guilty of under-marketing Play UK, wider factors have had an impact. Critics of Barb are right to suggest that its system is skewed away from independent youth audiences toward family viewing. Add to this the switch-off of ITV Digital and Play's top-rating audiences have fallen from 70,000 to 50,000 to make a good outside bet a faller at the first.

Clearly the fundamental problem for Play is that most of its audience is out experiencing the kind of music and events that it presents so well.

Its plight highlights that the problem in attracting young audiences is as acute as ever. While I, for one, will miss the option of watching the whole first series of The Office in one go, UKTV knew it was time to call it a day when Hallmark's light entertainment channel surpassed it in the 16 to 34 ratings.

While it is to ITV's discredit that it does not have the same ability to know when to cut its losses, perhaps there is the chance for a new lease of life for Play UK on a new platform. If BBC wins its battle for the DTT licences it could do worse than relaunch Play UK as its entertainment channel.

Claire Beale is away.


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