After moving online, BBC Three is back on the air

LONDON – When the BBC took its youth-focused television channel off the air and moved it online in 2016, the broadcaster was going where its viewers seemed to be.

Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon had transformed the way people in both the UK and the US watched TV, and BBC Three’s target audience, ages 16-34, was apparently turning their backs on traditional television channels.

Now, the UK public service broadcaster has made a U-turn: BBC Three – home to programs like “Fleabag” and “Normal People” – is back on terrestrial TV.

The move reflects the continuing challenges of understanding how the internet is changing television habits. And it shows how the BBC is doubling down on youth programming while addressing competition and potential budget cuts.

BBC Three was launched in 2003 as the younger brother of the BBC’s two longtime TV channels. He produced provocative comedies such as “The Mighty Boosh” and “Little Britain” which attracted a younger audience than the more conventional programming on BBC One and Two. The decision to turn BBC Three into a streaming channel also came with a massive cut to its budget, from £ 85 million to £ 30 million (from around $ 114 million to $ 40 million).

“It was a disaster. And it was an immediate disaster,” said Patrick Barwise, co-author of The War Against the BBC, of ​​the move.

Time spent watching the channel soon dropped by more than 70%, and it also lost the same percentage of reach among its target viewers, according to data from Enders, a research firm.

There is ample evidence that millions of families have, in fact, not switched to streaming. In an interview, Fiona Campbell, head of BBC Three, pointed to a recent report on Nielsen’s American TV habits which showed that 64% of viewers still regularly watch cable television, compared to 26% who watch streaming.

The idea that young people are turning their backs on traditional TV also seems more complicated than it was six years ago. The relaunch of BBC Three also aims to make its programming more accessible, Campbell said, especially for less affluent and more rural viewers who may not have high-speed internet and are less likely to stream.

Credit…via BBC

According to Barwise, many young viewers are also taking a hybrid approach. “People watch Netflix or other videos sometimes, and then they watch television,” he said. Despite a decline, younger viewers still watch more than an hour of live television a day, according to Ofcom, the British media regulator.

During its online-only years, BBC Three still produced some of the broadcaster’s most popular shows and the renewed investment in the channel – its programming budget will return to £ 80 million – comes at a time when the BBC is facing pressure. from several sides.

The UK government recently announced that the country’s license fee, which is charged to all households with TV every year and is the main source of funding for the BBC, will be frozen for the next two years. With inflation rising rapidly in Britain, this is likely to mean another round of cuts and BBC chief Tim Davie said “it’s all on the agenda”.

“Having a BBC license freeze just at a time when genuine inflation is very high and inflation in the broadcasting industry is really high may not be a good time,” said Roger Mosey, former head of BBC Television. News. “Not only do you have competition from streamers for audiences, you also have competition for talent.”

In this context, the public broadcaster is betting on BBC Three’s track record for producing lively shows combined with the charm of traditional “linear” television. In Britain, despite the availability of seemingly endless streaming content, viewers gravitate towards viewing weekly appointments.

The BBC publishes many of its popular shows as full seasons on iPlayer, its streaming service, at the same time as the first episode airs on television. Charlotte Moore, head of BBC content, said in a telephone interview that with “The Tourist”, a drama starring Jamie Dornan, “we were still getting two million people to choose to watch it on Sunday nights even though it’s all available. on iPlayer. “

When BBC Three’s ‘Normal People’ aired on the broadcaster’s mainstream TV channels, it was regularly a trending topic on British social media. “When we do shows that really drive the conversation,” Campbell said, “people want to participate in the moment live. And that’s why channels still play a role.”

Campbell also believes there are drawbacks to only distributing streaming shows, as viewers may be more reluctant to engage with documentaries on challenging public service topics. Citing a recent series on revenge porn, he said: “These are very challenging topics and people would say, ‘Do I really want to go there?’ Considering that if they meet him in linear, it can be less intimidating.

While Moore did not want to say whether BBC Three would be immune from the next round of budget cuts, he did indicate that youth programming would remain the center of attention. “Obviously we will look at our entire funding envelope to figure out how to meet all the needs of the public, with the money we have,” he said. “But obviously, the young crowd will continue to be a key part of that.”

With its return to the air, Campbell also hopes to set BBC Three apart from its commercial streaming rivals by telling stories from across Britain. Upcoming programs include “Brickies”, which follows young masons in the north of England, and a tractor racing competition called “The Fast and the Farmer (ish)”, filmed in Northern Ireland and created to attract the 11 million young people living in the British countryside.

“You want to reflect the current challenges, pressures and hardships people are facing now, even more so after the pandemic,” Campbell said. “If we don’t reflect that, then why do they need us in their lives?”