Two words tell you everything you need to know about today’s announcement that BBC3 is to become an online-only channel: ‘spoiler alert’. The phrase is now part of the cultural language, an everyday reality for consumers of all types of media. And that’s because broadcasting – the notion that we all watch the same thing at the same time – is, for huge numbers of people, dead. Not dying – dead.
That’s why it doesn’t matter that you’ll now only be able to watch BBC3 on the iPlayer. Of all Auntie’s channels it’s surely the best one to be pushed off the terrestrial cliff first — it’s aimed at the yoot, who are tableted and broadband-ed and 4G-ed up to the gonads. The idea that they’ll be bothered by not being able to watch Pramface and Snog Marry Avoid? on that steam-powered thing in the corner of the room called a … what was it again? … oh yes, a ‘television’ … is ridiculous.
I mean, even old farts like me are used to the fact that online is now the mainstream. The biggest TV hit of recent years – Breaking Bad – has been watched by different groups of people at different times via different media. Some people signed up to Netflix for the final series last summer. I was in the group who waited for the series to be released on DVD. It meant a couple of months of making sure that Netflix-enabled friends didn’t reveal anything to me. But they were happy to do that – which is exactly my point.
We live in a Spoiler Alert world now. Everyone accepts that others might not yet have seen TV shows, and tailors their conversation accordingly. The same thing happens with films – I saw Skyfall about a month after it came out at the cinema, long after several of my friends had done so. Not a single one of them had even hinted at the Big Surprise in the final scene. Nor had any of the TV or radio pundits I’d heard talking about the film. There seemed to be an unspoken nationwide agreement that everyone would keep it a secret. Even now, a couple of years after the film’s release, I’m not going to mention it here.
These days I conduct pretty much all my BBC TV viewing via iPlayer. It’s no longer a case of ‘What’s on tonight? I must make sure I’m in front of the TV at the appointed time’. Rather it’s ‘I’ve got an hour free now – let’s see what’s been on in the last week that I fancy the look of’. And even if viewers do want to watch a series in the old way – sitting down at the same time on the same day for several weeks running – then a web-only channel offers them that option. Witness that final series of Breaking Bad – Netflix ‘released’ each week’s episode on Monday evenings, and plenty of people watched it the very minute it became available. It was, to all intents and purposes, just like the old days.
If even I can get my head round that, the BBC3 posse certainly can (once they’ve finished laughing themselves senseless at me using such an old-fashioned word as ‘posse’). I don’t want to be the spoiler of the argument some people seem determined to have — but I really think they should become alert to the new reality.
Mark Mason is an author and former BBC producer
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