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BBC is shutting out Young Britain

IN October 2010, not for the first time, the BBC caved in to the Government.

The consequences were economic rather than political. They were presented by the then director-general, Mark Thompson, as a victory against the odds in a country struggling with a financial crisis. In truth, the corporation surrendered several of its principles and much credibility.

One result will be the planned "migration" of BBC3 to the internet and the corporation's iPlayer in the autumn of 2015. "Youth", that segment of the BBC's audience with the least political power and the fewest public voices, will become an afterthought in the demographic maze negotiated by a broadcaster still determined to be all things to all viewers and listeners.

The strange late-night pleasures of the imported Family Guy aside, I don't watch BBC3. Equally, I question its credentials as the home of youthful innovation when I note a slew of EastEnders, Doctor Who and Top Gear reruns on an evening-only channel. But BBC3 isn't aimed at me. For me, and for the rest of the white, middle-aged licence fee-payers who dominate arguments over the corporation's output, there are plenty of alternatives.

Last week, BBC3 had 3.2% of the TV audience between 7pm and 2am. Its best-performing offerings were Hair (a hairdressing contest), EastEnders and Family Guy. The first attracted 785,000 viewers on a Tuesday night. That doesn't sound like much, but in a multi-channel age, it's not bad. In February, for example, BBC4 was delighted when its "hit" Danish/Swedish thriller The Bridge managed 1.1 million viewers while C4's imported Hostages achieved just 700,000.

Last month, in fact, BBC3 had a 6.6% "average daily reach", according to the British Audience Research Board. The figures for BBC4, Sky 1 and E4 came in at 4.2%, 5.5% and 6.6%. The youth channel is not, in those terms, any sort of disaster.

The BBC faces those stereotypical hard choices, however. It is halfway through an exercise named Delivering Quality First, one of those euphemistically-titled programmes of cuts, inaugurated by Thompson and designed to reduce £4.9 billion of spending by £700 million. Tony Hall, the latest director-general, said recently that another £100m would have to be found, despite a redundancy programme that has seen the corporation begin to shed 2000 staff. So BBC3 becomes a virtual channel.

As an attempt to make savings, however, Hall's plan is odd. Last week, he boasted that while £50m would be saved from BBC3's £85m budget with the move to iPlayer, £30m of that had been earmarked for drama on BBC1 and a small amount reserved to give children's channel CBBC an extra hour a day. Whatever you think of BBC3 programmes such as Pramface, Snog Marry Avoid, or F*** Off, I'm Ginger, a channel watched by 29% of the 16- to 34-year-old audience is being dumped to save a relatively small sum.

How did the BBC get itself into this position? In part because it was long ago cowed by government; in part because its executives mishandled licence fee negotiations spectacularly. In 2010, above all, the corporation went along with the extraordinary proposition that its finances had a bearing on the Coalition's comprehensive spending review. The licence fee might well be a poll tax, but the revenue is in no sense Government income. The BBC is not a Government department.

Thompson and his executives were outfoxed. First, they had to fend off the absurd notion that the BBC should bear the cost (£556m annually) of free TV licences for the over-75s. As it managed to insist, a state benefit was no part of its responsibility. But it still found itself taking over funding of the World Service from the Foreign Office, accepting responsibility for Welsh-language channel S4C, and shouldering the cost of BBC Monitoring. In 2010, that lot was estimated at just over £400m a year.

Simultaneously, it was announced that the corporation would chip in £150m a year for the "rollout" of superfast broadband; £25m for local TV and online content; and another one-off £25m for the same services. All of this might have been tolerable if Thompson, battered by assaults on BBC journalism and celebrity salaries, had not accepted a licence fee deal that now looks near-idiotic. He called it a guarantee of stability, but a six-year freeze - in real terms, a 16% cut - lay at the heart of every subsequent crisis and redundancy dispute. It also did for BBC3.

Some would say the corporation's rapid expansion at the start of the century now looks like hubris. The attempt to provide a dedicated service to all ages and all interests in a multi-channel world might have been passed off as a modern version of the old Reithian mission to educate, inform and entertain, but it ignored two things. First, "family viewing" survives. Secondly, the young BBC3 audience has not quit TV for other screens, such as tablets. In most homes, the familiar box still dominates and viewers remain more than a collection of niche demographics. Yet in TV and radio alike the BBC has seemed determined to service (or placate) this age group or that social class, from working-class toddlers to middle-class professionals keen on a bit of Scandi noir.

You could call that misconceived. But you could also ask how those hard choices are made - and why - when times are tough and the mission becomes too hard to sustain. BBC3 has 13 million viewers a week. In August last year, Radio Four hit a "record-breaking" weekly score of 10.97 million. Which group has more rights? Or rather, which group is better placed to influence those who run the BBC? To whom would politicians listen?

The answers are obvious. If you believe that the Today programme is a bit more important to society than Snog Marry Avoid, you are liable to think the obvious answers are the right answers. But the BBC3 demographic embraces close to one million of the young unemployed - less likely to be white than the Radio Four fan base; more likely to be excluded from the political process. They are no match for the grey power of pensioners.

For my taste, most of the things on BBC3 are rubbish. To be accurate, though, most of the things on most channels are rubbish. But I can take consolation from the fact that the BBC will go on trying to cater to my interests and tastes for a long time to come, just as it will go on serving up EastEnders and witless talent shows to those not deemed a minority.

For whom does the BBC exist? Young Britain just got pushed unceremoniously to the back of the queue.

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