LONDON – When the BBC took off its youth-oriented TV channel and moved it online in 2016, the broadcaster went where its viewers seemed to be.
Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon had changed the way people – both in Britain and the US – watched television, and the BBC Three’s audience of 16- to 34-year-olds apparently turned their backs on traditional television channels.
Now the British public broadcaster has made a U-turn: BBC Three – home to shows like “Fleabag” and “Normal People” – is back on terrestrial TV.
The move reflects the ongoing challenges of understanding how the Internet is changing TV habits. And it shows how the BBC is doubling down on youth programming when it comes to competition and potential budget cuts.
BBC Three was launched in 2003 as a younger brother of the BBC’s two long-running TV channels. It produced provocative comedies such as “The Mighty Boosh” and “Little Britain” which appealed to 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 in its budget, from 85 to 30 million pounds (about $ 114 million to $ 40 million).
“It was a disaster. And it was a direct disaster,” Patrick Barwise, co-author of the book “The War Against the BBC,” said of the movement.
The time spent viewing the channel soon fell by more than 70 percent, and it also lost the same share of reach among its target audience, according to data from Enders, a research company.
There is broader evidence that millions of households have in fact not moved to streaming. In an interview, Fiona Campbell, head of BBC Three, pointed to a recent report on Nielsen’s American television habits which showed that 64 per cent of viewers still regularly watch cable television, compared to 26 per cent 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 re-launch of BBC Three is also meant 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.
According to Barwise, many young viewers are also taking a hybrid approach. “People sometimes watch Netflix or other videos, and then they watch broadcast,” he said. Despite a decline, younger viewers still watch more than one hour of live television a day, according to Ofcom, the British media regulator.
During its online years, BBC Three still produced some of the broadcaster’s most popular shows, and the renewed investment in the channel – whose program budget will return to £ 80 million – comes at a time when the BBC has access to it from various quarters. with pressure.
The British government recently announced that the country’s license fee, which is charged annually to all households with a TV 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 has said that “everything is on the agenda.”
“Freezing the BBC license fee at the very moment when real inflation is really high, and the inflation in the broadcasting sector is really high, can not be a good moment,” said Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC Television News. “You not only have competition from streamers for audiences, you also have competition for talent.”
In this regard, the public broadcaster is betting on the track record of BBC Three for producing buzzy shows combined with the allure of traditional “linear” television. In the UK, despite the availability of seemingly endless streaming content, viewers are looking at viewing weekly shows.
The BBC publishes many of its popular programs as full seasons on iPlayer, its streaming service, at the same time as the first episode airs on broadcast television. Charlotte Moore, head of BBC content, said in a telephone interview that with “The Tourist”, a drama starring Jamie Dornan, “we still choose two million people to watch it on a Sunday night, even if it’s all available on iPlayer “
When the BBC Three show “Normal People” aired on the broadcaster’s traditional TV channels, it regularly became a trending topic on British social media. “When we show that it really drives conversation,” Campbell said, “people want to be in for the live moment. And that’s why channels still have a role to play.”
Campbell also believes there are disadvantages to broadcasting shows only through streaming, as viewers may be more hesitant to engage with documentaries on challenging topics for public service. Citing a recent series on revenge porn, she said, “These are very challenging topics, and people would say, ‘Do I really want to go there?’ However, if they encounter it on a linear basis, it may be less intimidating. “
While Moore would not say whether BBC Three would be immune from the next round of budget cuts, she indicated that youth programming would remain a core focus. “Obviously, we will look into our entire funding hand to figure out how we will meet all the needs of the public, with the money we have,” she said. “But of course the young audience will remain a critical part of it.”
With his return to broadcast, Campbell also hopes to make BBC Three its commercial streaming rivals by telling stories from across Britain. Upcoming programs include “Brickies”, which follows young bricklayers in the north of England, and a tractor racing competition called “The Fast and the Farmer (ish)”, filmed in Northern Ireland and made to appeal to the 11 million young people living in the British countryside.
“You want to reflect on the current challenges and pressures and difficulties that people are facing right now, all the more so after the pandemic,” Campbell said. “If we do not reflect that, why do they need us in their lives?”