BBC3 boss on going online only: ‘We are reinventing the BBC’s offer to youth’

Controller Damian Kavanagh on taking his station online, nurturing talent, and how he’s winning over critics

On 16 February BBC3 will go online only, causing, according to critics such as producers Jimmy Mulville and Jon Thoday, “massive damage to the development of future television audiences and of new talent, both on and off-screen”.

BBC3 controller Damian Kavanagh, unsurprisingly, disagrees. The fast-talking Irishman says that when it was first announced that the BBC wanted to close BBC3’s broadcast channel to save money it “felt a bit when we were having conversations that this was sad for talent or there would be lost opportunities for talent. In truth when I see the kinds of things we’re commissioning [especially] short-form there’s more opportunity for talent in a way.”

He points to new ventures such as a collaboration with Idris Elba’s company Green Door Pictures, which is “still in the very early stages of discussion” but will feature new writers working with established actors and “a range of people will be involved”.

A genial man born in Dublin, he joined the BBC in 1994. He has stayed there, in various roles including as head of planning and scheduling at BBC Daytime and controller of CBBC, apart from a short sojourn to Channel 4 a few years ago. But looking after Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was not for him.

As acting controller of BBC3 after founding controller Stuart Murphy left in 2005, and with experience in BBC children’s, Kavanagh was an obvious choice to head up the channel after Zai Bennett left for Sky two years ago.

Kavanagh, who has a similar quickfire wit to Dara O’Briain, undoubtedly has one of the hardest gigs in the BBC. But he is open about how difficult things have been to get to the point of closure – convincing the BBC Trust and the public that online only is the way to go.

“I can’t deny there have been certain challenges along the way. I believe in the content and that there’s a purpose behind BBC3 – working with a group of really enthusiastic, incredibly creative people who just seem to get it.

“We’re going to try things and we don’t have to wait eight or nine months for things to come to fruition, then see how it goes, then take another eight or nine months to put that into effect.”

But what about the money? Mulville and Thoday argued the move, “represents a major change of BBC policy whereby spend on younger viewers is reduced by £30m per annum”.

“There is less money around,” admits Kavanagh, “and BBC3 grew out of that but the way we focus our editorial priorities makes us sharper. We’re not going to be spending as much money on acquisitions. We are supporting and nurturing new British talent, it’s not about spending money on foreign acquisitions.” By which he is probably referring to shows such as Family Guy, which has now been picked up by ITV2.

However, the focus on new talent can pay off as the roll call of those helped or given their big break by BBC3 is like a Who’s Who of British comedy. James Corden, David Walliams, Matt Lucas, Ruth Jones, Mathew Horne and Russell Howard have all been propelled into the mainstream while BBC3’s launch schedule included Little Britain, which subsequently moved to BBC2, as later did Jack Whitehall’s Backchat.

Other notable highlights include documentary series Our War and the satirical animation Monkey Dust, which helped boost Sharon Horgan’s career prior to her acclaimed Pulling.

These are the kind of shows the old BBC3 would want to be remembered for rather than those with headline-grabbing titles so beloved of the Daily Mail such as F*** Off I’m a Hairy Woman and Snog Marry Avoid.

The new BBC3 will target 16-34 year-olds with two new platforms, the Daily Drop providing content including short films, articles and news and sport updates and The Best Of, bringing together new shows, long and short.

To work with the new outlets, Kavanagh has had to design innovative ways of working, putting him at the frontier of the BBC. If it works it could provide a template for other areas to follow.

“We’re doing things differently and with other parts of the BBC,” he recounts at breakneck speed. “We’ve got a content team here that does stuff for us on a daily basis, we’ve become a production hub in addition to just a commissioner broadcaster.

“The big top line numbers people need to know are we’ve got £30m a year to spend on content for young people – 80% of it spent on long form and 20% on new forms.”

The budget breaks down into around £10m on comedy, the same on serious factual, £3m for drama and the rest on new forms of content.

Kavanagh points out, though, that the follow-up to the award-winning Murdered By My Boyfriend, Murdered By My Father, is a drama but some of the money comes from factual so “it’s not locked in stone”. One of the most exciting things for writers and producers is the fact they are not constrained so much by time. Murdered By My Boyfriend is currently 15-minutes longer than its predecessor.

How the BBC will measure the success of the pioneering BBC3 is tricky because as well as some shows being broadcast on BBC1 and BBC2 it will also have outlets on YouTube, Snapchat and Facebook.

“We’re working it out,” says Kavanagh. “It is difficult and no one’s cracked it entirely as we’re out on so many different platforms. I don’t envy the job of the people who are going to try and tell the story. But the way people are consuming content is changing and we as an organisation have got to get good at measuring how it’s doing.”

With the bright pink new logo – which caused a stir when it emerged in January – not having the words BBC on it and the use of names without BBC branding such as The Daily Drop, it almost seems as though the corporation is reaching “the youth” by stealth – not drawing attention to the BBC brand in case it puts them off.

Kavanagh is pretty resilient, having worked on BBC3 in its early days. He recounts something Murphy said to him at the time: “He said ‘all those slots on BBC3 that rated zero. Your job is to try and get them to rate something other than zero’ and I think people forget it started as a fledgling service that went on to produce the great talent that it did.”

He remembers the naysayers who did not want BBC3 when it first began 13 years ago: “People don’t like change, people love the BBC and BBC3 in particular, but there was all the hoo-ha when BBC3 launched in the early days … People said that means you’re taking away money from what we do traditionally, you’re doing something different.”

The negative reaction from some to the online BBC3 was because “genuinely I think people did not understand. The more we went out and started talking to people, particularly young people, the interesting thing for me on this journey and where my confidence came from is we’ve done a hell of a lot of talking to our audience – who I think are the most important people and they get it and are supportive of it.”

On switchover day there will be new episodes of popular Greg Davies comedy Cuckoo, new comedians in Live From The BBC and a new series of the Bafta winning Life and Death Row. There will be trails on BBC TV and Radio 1, in particular, telling audiences what is going on and the old channel will remain on the electronic programme guides for six weeks with information on where to find BBC3.

As well as offering a chance for experimentation, the move off the airwaves has also it seems kept Kavanagh in a job. Last month Charlotte Moore took control of BBC1, BBC2 and BBC4, Kavanagh kept BBC3.

“The reasoning behind it, what we’re trying to do, and what I’m doing on BBC3, is we’re reinventing the BBC’s offer for young people and I imagine they felt at the moment that Charlotte’s going to be a busy woman!”

With the TV industry and BBC3’s audience looking on intently to see how the BBC’s experiment goes, surely Kavanagh is going to be pretty busy too? “Nah, there’s not much going on,” he quips.

Curriculum vitae

Age 47

Education Presentation College, Glasthule; University College, Dublin.

Career 1994 various roles in BBC daytime and BBC1, BBC3 head of planning and scheduling 2005 acting controller of BBC3 2006 BBC daytime head of planning and scheduling 2009 controller, CBBC 2012 head of features and factual formats, Channel 4 2013 controller, BBC Daytime 2014 controller, BBC3

  • This article was amended on 8 February to correct inaccurate references to Kavanagh’s education


Tara Conlan

The GuardianTramp

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