Will BBC Three’s return to linear-TV stem its decline in audiences, asks Shilpa Ganatra.
In two months’ time, almost six years to the day that BBC Three became a solely internet network in order to save money, the service is returning as a linear channel. Arguably, it’s not a moment too soon. For, along with every other traditional broadcaster, the BBC is grappling with how to attract younger audiences and compete effectively with the streamers.
During BBC Three’s online-only years, in which the content budget was slashed from £81m (2013/14) to £30m (2017/18), the channel’s target viewership of 16- to 34-year-olds nosedived, says Tom Harrington, head of television at Enders Analysis.
“BBC Three wasn’t massive when it moved online in 2016. The share of 16- to 34-year-olds was something like 28%, but it still had resonance,” he explains. “When it was online only, it just became a tab behind a tab on iPlayer. We put out a report that showed a 70% drop in viewing – and this was up to last year. It was far worse than the BBC’s estimates of around 15%.”
Still, big-hitting shows such as Killing Eve, Fleabag, Normal People and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK were effective shop windows to the world of BBC Three, especially as they were given linear broadcasts on BBC One and sometimes BBC Two.
Reflecting this cutting-edge content, which also embraced such shows as People Just Do Nothing and one-off drama Murdered by My Father, BBC Three won the RTS’s Channel of the Year in 2017.
During the last year alone, it unveiled its new music and chat show, Tonight with Target, launched former Love Island star Zara McDermott as a documentary presenter and registered an industry-leading gender balance in its comedy offerings, with 58% of its long-form scripted comedy written by women.
In terms of what we can expect in the months ahead, the broad direction of travel at BBC Three is unlikely to change. “One of the reasons the return to linear is happening is because our content is working, so the broadcast channel is all about giving it a bigger window, and giving audiences more opportunity to see it,” says BBC Three’s controller, Fiona Campbell.
She adds: “When I started in my role [in December 2018], I wanted to make us more fun and entertaining and build a slate of returning brands to work alongside our noisy factual pieces.
“You can expect us to continue building on that, alongside working with our partners in the nations to commission more programmes that are representative of the whole of the UK.
“Beyond that, we’re also making a big play in drama, with four titles next year, including Superhoe, Red Rose, Wrecked and [Sally Rooney’s Normal People follow-up] Conversations with Friends.”
When BBC Three returns, it’s due to air after CBBC, from 7:00pm to 4:00am, with pre-watershed content for the over-13s. Ofcom has stipulated that at least 75% of the hours broadcast each year must be original programmes, commissioned by the BBC for UK viewers, and the schedule should include a weekday news programme.
There are high hopes that BBC Three will come good on Ofcom’s broad challenge of “daring to be different”, especially as its content will no longer need to air on the mainstream channels.
“At the moment, [flagship] BBC Three content serves a dual purpose because it airs online on iPlayer, and on BBC One and BBC Two. Its content therefore skews a little bit younger, but not completely, because older people don’t want to be too shocked,” says Harrington, citing Love Island as a well-targeted programme that works on ITV2 but would likely have struggled on ITV’s main channel.
It begs the question of how edgy the already-edgy Normal People could have gone if it was squarely aimed at a BBC Three audience – although, as a co-production with Hulu, this was not solely the BBC’s call. Such creative decisions make a case for limiting co-productions.
“Plus, with young talent, you want to be able to fully fund a show because it’s hard to strike a co-production arrangement using talent that’s not known in other territories,” says Jon Thoday, co-founder of Avalon, the independent production company and talent agency, who led a campaign to save BBC Three when it was first threatened with becoming online-only.
“When we made Starstruck for BBC Three with Rose Matafeo, we also got funding from HBO in North America, so it’s not impossible – but it is hard,” he adds.
While losing out on the mass audiences of BBC One and BBC Two may hurt overall viewership figures in the short term, there are obvious advantages to being a separate linear channel. For starters, there is still a significant audience of young adults who watch traditional television. In fact, during BBC’s Three’s online existence, around three-quarters of its viewing came from TV sets, as opposed to computers, tablets and smartphones, according to the Enders Analysis report “BBC Three’s reinvention online: Effects on viewing and content”.
“It’s still valuable to be in as many places as possible, especially when content is curated and easy to navigate, with the added advantage of prominence on the EPG,” suggests Harrington. “Also, you can use it as a barker channel: where, basically, the point of it is to tempt viewers to go to iPlayer and watch more content.”
To beef up its offering, BBC Three is “doubling its content budget”, according to the BBC, to in the region of £79m. This is still less than the £81m earmarked for content towards the end of its first linear-TV run. “And bear in mind, that’s a lot of years ago, and there’s been massive inflation in the industry,” notes Thoday.
For him, the channel’s future prospects have less to do with its platform and more to do with its content spend. “That is fundamental,” he insists. “When it went online, if the BBC had increased the content budget, it might have been OK. But it didn’t do that, and it didn’t increase the marketing budget, either.
“Linear channels cost money to run, and the BBC may be spending money on running a linear channel in a world where, generally, streamers are the future. I’m very keen that more money is spent on the future of television, which means spending it with young writers, performers and behind-the-screen talent, and for a young audience. My fear is it will cost the BBC a huge amount of money, but it’s not prepared to spend it, or it doesn’t have it because the Government is hamstringing it with licence-fee restrictions.”
Campbell, however, insists that the commitment to nurturing new – and diverse – talent remains. “BBC Three has always been a great launch platform for new talent in front of and behind the camera, including our New Director Scheme,” she says. “We intend to keep evolving these opportunities for breakthrough talent across Britain. We know the landscape will continue to evolve but we’re confident that we can offer something unique within it.”
Time will tell if February’s return to EPGs will help BBC Three claw back some of its lost viewers. “I wouldn’t hold out for massive engagement, with people watching hours and hours,” warns Harrington. “That wasn’t even the case in 2016, and it’s certainly not going to be the case in 2022.
“Overall, this is a little bit late. But the BBC needs to make bold moves, and this is one of them.”
Photo credit: BBC