To Three or not to Three?: Ofcom provisionally approves the return of BBC Three to broadcast television

September 29, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

The media regulator Ofcom has given provisional approval for BBC Three to make a return to broadcast television.

What does this mean?

BBC Three was taken off air in 2016 under the assumption that young viewers no longer consumed traditional television. The channel has been accessible via BBC iPlayer only since then, but is set to return to standard broadcasting in January 2022, pending the outcome of Ofcom’s public consultation. As a public service channel, it will have a right to be listed in the top 24 channels on electronic programming guides. Rivals have complained their channels will be bumped down the listing and unable to enjoy the same visibility, and there are competition-based concerns over the potential loss of viewers for Channel 4; its programming is similarly youth-focused. However, these objections did not sway Ofcom’s conclusion that the public value of the linear return of BBC Three justifies the limited adverse market impact. The final decision is expected by the end of this year.

What's the big picture effect?

BBC Three has always had a reputation as the younger and more diverse sibling of the traditional stalwarts of BBC One and BBC Two, with 2017 research finding that the average viewer of these channels was 61 and 62 respectively. BBC Three was launched in 2003 to provide “innovative programming” to a target demographic between the ages of 16 and 34. However, after considerable budget cuts across the BBC, and the potentially misguided belief that young people no longer wished to watch television in the traditional sense, the BBC decided in 2014 that the channel should go online. Since then, the platform has hosted a number of critically acclaimed shows, and over the course of the pandemic, was the sole provider of huge success stories like Normal People, Fleabag, Killing Eve and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. Normal People became an overnight sensation and BBC’s most streamed series of the year with 62.7m views. According to reports, this gave BBC Three its most successful week ever on iPlayer. 

There are plans to more than double BBC Three’s annual budget to over £70m to give it the financial power to provide a quality linear service. This decision seems bold considering the £125m loss in income the corporation has shouldered during the pandemic. At the time of the announcement, there were no plans to cut the less-popular BBC Four, or to divert funds from services like BBC Radio, which has in recent years had to compete with the growth of platforms like Spotify. These newer services may appear to undermine the longstanding popularity of older technologies, but the success of BBC Three online and on air has shown that established brands like the BBC may be able to weather the storm of innovation better than critics have given them credit for.

The decision to revive the channel begs the question of whether the choice to relegate BBC Three to iPlayer in 2016 was ill-advised. Research by Ofcom into public sector broadcasting suggests otherwise: there was a 53-minute reduction in daily TV viewing between 2014 and 2018 in the 16-24 age group, and for children aged 12-15, brand awareness of names like Netflix and Youtube was higher than for the BBC. With that age group soon to be coming within BBC Three’s target demographic, the broadcaster will have to ensure its online output remains competitive. However, the allure of a night in watching television, especially as winter draws in, ought not to be overlooked: BBC’s long-running Strictly Come Dancing has boasted an average UK viewership of over 10m per episode for the past decade according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board (BARB), and the 2020 series of The Great British Bake Off gave Channel 4 its highest audience for a TV series in 35 years.

The BBC will be hoping that it can double down on its successes by retaining BBC Three’s current online viewership as well as drawing in new audiences via regular broadcasting. However, the potential financial impact of this project elsewhere in the BBC is not yet transparent, and it remains to be seen to what extent the broadcaster will be successful in winning back younger audiences it may have lost to competitors over the past five years. If the move proves a triumph, we could potentially see the beginning of a new era of investment into TV broadcasting and more traditional forms of media.

Report written by Laura Wiles

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