Why BBC Three is defying the sceptics

Why BBC Three is defying the sceptics

Wednesday, 10th May 2017
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From Fleabag to Thirteen, BBC Three's online-only service is defying the sceptics, says Sanya Burgess

Not everyone was happy with the Royal Television Society crowning BBC Three Channel of the Year. As one young viewer tweeted: “@bbcthree how can you win channel of the year, if you don’t actually exist on a channel?” 

The success of online-only, schedule-free BBC Three shows that our idea of what constitutes a channel is evolving.

Forced off the air in early 2016 as a cost-cutting measure, sceptics thought that BBC Three faced an early and regrettable death. Yet, the service has gone on to confound the pundits. It picked up six awards at the recent RTS Programme Awards, from Single Drama to Channel of the Year, and it has also been nominated for eight Baftas.

So, how did BBC Three become the Cinderella of television?

In March 2014, BBC Director-General Tony Hall announced that the youth channel would stop broadcasting and move online, with its budget slashed from £85m to £30m. Speaking at the time, BBC Trustee Suzanna Taverne said: “The decision to close a TV channel is a difficult one, and one we have not taken lightly.” A petition against the closure gathered more than 300,000 signatures. Stars, including Daniel Radcliffe and Olivia Colman, voiced their resistance to the move.

After its last show was broadcast on 16 February 2016, BBC Three lost no time in posting a video online called Welcome to BBC Three on YouTube. Earnest comments, such as “RIP BBC3 2003-16”, were posted underneath. To this day, the video has been viewed only 45,000 times.

At the time of its closure, BBC Three had an average daily audience of 925,000 under the age of 25. Experts predicted that only 20% of them would remain loyal to the channel online.

“It sounds to me a bit like sour grapes because we won Channel of the Year.”

Fast forward 15 months. The station is still hitting some duff notes. Some videos on its YouTube channel have extremely low viewing figures – some struggling to reach 230 views.

However, other videos have secured in excess of 1 million views on the YouTube channel, which has more than 243,000 subscribers – double that of E4’s rival YouTube channel.

Over the past year, BBC Three’s YouTube service has accumulated more than 40 million views; the monthly average is 4 million views.

BBC Three has also found solid support on Facebook. Episodes of its weekly, short-form series Amazing Humans have notched up a total in excess of 90 million views.

Another of BBC Three’s short-form videos, Things People with Down’s Syndrome Are Tired of Hearing, has been viewed more than 14 million times and received over 130,000 likes and 220,000 shares. Since the start of 2017, the station’s total Facebook worldwide reach has averaged 53 million people a week – with a peak of 88 million one week in February.

It’s not all just about social. The channel’s strongest content is prominent on iPlayer. For example, in 2016, the first episode of drama Thirteen attracted more than 3.2 million iPlayer views and was only knocked off the top of the iPlayer ratings that year by Planet Earth II.

BBC Three controller Damian Kavanagh says that the vision for BBC Three online has been, from the very beginning, to push boundaries: “We wanted to commission programmes that felt very distinctive and we also wanted to work with a wide range of talent – both established and brand new.”

Damian Kavanagh 
(Credit: Richard Kendal)

He believes that BBC Three has lived up to this and, while continuing to be a badge of quality, it has become a hub for innovation and demonstrated its willingness to take a punt on first-time talent.

Kavanagh argues that, freed from the burden of a schedule, his team can also focus on the best way to tell each story without having to worry about cutting content down to fit into its slot.

He gives the example of last year’s documentary Unsolved, an investigation into the historical disappearance of a teenage boy on the Isle of Wight: “I commissioned it and said just go and shoot. We sent two journalists there and told them to get to the bottom of the story. They came back and then discovered what format it would take. It ended up as eight 10-minute films.”

Additional content was published alongside the films, which audiences were encouraged to explore at their own pace.

The nature of online also means that content can be turned around with the speed of news programming. Incredibly, some of the Stacey Dooley Investigates documentaries are available to watch within a week of being commissioned.

Kavanagh does not believe that scheduled television is dying – perhaps because his channel’s long-form content has continued to be broadcast on BBC One and Two. But he is convinced that the way young people consume video is changing and that BBC Three is tapping into that change.

As a result, he also does not believe that BBC Three is stealing viewers from rival channels, such as Channel 4 and E4, because nowadays so much is watched on catch-up.

E4 has remained the most popular digital channel for viewers aged 16-34. Its two top-rating shows last year were The Big Bang Theory and Tattoo Fixers, pulling in average audiences of 2.6 million and 1.2 million, respectively.

By comparison, BBC Three drama Murdered by My Father had 1.8 million iPlayer requests last year, while the first episode of the third season of Cuckoo had 1.5 million requests. One of BBC Three’s biggest hits last year was Fleabag, a dark comedy following one woman’s struggle to cope with a personal tragedy and the demands of life in the capital. The show keeps winning prizes for its star and creator, Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Lydia Hampson, who produced Fleabag, says: “Phoebe was super new talent and BBC Three was a great home because its whole remit is to take chances on new talent and that’s absolutely what Phoebe was. It was far more open to taking risks with the show.”

Hampson believes that BBC Three gave Waller-Bridge the creative freedom she needed to make the show in a way that remained true to her original play. Recall, for instance, that the very first episode contained the C-word. And even if one episode ran to 22 minutes and another ran to 31 minutes, it was no big deal as there was no schedule to squeeze it into.

Despite the strong content emerging from BBC Three, some critics are frustrated that it is being compared like-for-like with terrestrial TV channels. Indeed, some senior industry figures insist that a core part of being defined
as a channel is having to fill a traditional schedule with variety and skill.

One such practitioner remarked – on condition of anonymity – that, while he was impressed with the quality of programming considering its limited budget, he doubted whether BBC Three could deliver the same quality consistently over a 24/7 schedule.

Kavanagh bats away these criticisms: “I think that that’s a really strange delineation. I don’t know what they mean by a ‘real channel’. What is a TV channel? It’s a collection of content.

“If you go down that line, you could argue that some of the channels that are repeats-heavy and don’t have a certain quantity of origination on them aren’t real channels.

“It sounds to me a bit like sour grapes because we won Channel of the Year.”

He adds: “We were judged on exactly the same as everyone else.... I believe the content we’ve made over the past year has been outstanding and it’s outstanding because of the brilliant people who wanted to work with us.”

Reflecting on the anger around the initial move to online-only, Kavanagh quips: “People don’t like change, do they?”

It is a sentiment that will likely dog BBC Three for some time to come.

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