Corporation announces return of youth-oriented channel to linear programming after five years
BBC Three will return as a broadcast channel next year, the BBC said, five years after it was dropped because the corporation argued its young viewers had abandoned terrestrial viewing.
The corporation said the decision to bring the channel back in January 2022 had been made in an attempt to woo back younger audiences who have turned away from its output. In 2016 the BBC Trust said that the move was justified because “independent evidence shows younger audiences are watching more online and watching less linear TV”.
While on average young adults now spend more time with the BBC than any other media brand, “our research identified a significant group of younger viewers who maintain a strong linear TV habit but are currently light users of the BBC”, the corporation said in a statement on Tuesday. “We want to change that.” It will also expand the channel’s target audience to create some pre-watershed content for over 13s.
The move, heavily trailed last year, will be seen as a sign of the strength of programming produced by BBC Three – and a tacit recognition that the previous decision may have been a mistake. Recent hits including Killing Eve, Fleabag and Normal People have all been broadcast on the corporation’s existing mainstream channels and been sold around the world.
The decision to take BBC Three off air was hugely controversial, prompting a Save BBC Three campaign that attracted 300,000 signatures and claims that the BBC was failing younger viewers.
Ash Atalla, the comedy producer behind BBC Three hit People Just Do Nothing and managing director of Roughcut TV, said in 2014 the decision to make BBC Three online only was as if “a 60-year-old man wearing a golf jumper has just walked into a really good nightclub and turned the music off”.
On Tuesday he told the Guardian: “It was a mistake, for sure. It sent the wrong message to young people. So I really welcome this – bigger budgets, broader programming, but more than anything the chance for the BBC to establish the link with tomorrow’s generation. This is an underserved audience that should be superserved by the BBC because they will decide its very survival.”
When BBC Three came off air, the corporation argued that the move was necessary to save money because of government-imposed cuts and that most of its audience was online in any case. But more recently it has come under growing pressure to show that it is serving younger audiences, including from regulator Ofcom.
“The BBC needs to back success and make sure its programmes reach as many young people as possible wherever they live in the UK,” said its chief content officer, Charlotte Moore. “So regardless of the debates about the past, we want to give BBC Three its own broadcast channel again. It has exciting, groundbreaking content that deserves the widest possible audience.”
Jon Thoday, joint founder of independent producer Avalon who led a campaign to save BBC Three as a broadcast channel and was one of those behind an audacious bid to buy it when it went online-only, said the change was “extremely good news” but noted: “obviously it’s a step they wouldn’t have had to take had they not stepped backwards years ago.”
He said that while the use of linear broadcast as a publicity engine would be helpful, “what’s really important is whether they are going to increase investment sufficiently in new talent.” He suggested the BBC should be looking at a budget of upwards of £200m. Last year the BBC said the BBC Three budget would be doubled to £80m, still down on the £90m a year it had in 2014.
Others noted that the channel had been a crucial launchpad for many broadcasters. The newsreader and presenter Tina Daheley tweeted: “Woo hoo!!! Started my telly career @bbcthree and wouldn’t be where I am now if it wasn’t for the opportunities I was given here outside of traditional news.”
Roger Mosey, a former head of television news and editorial director at the BBC, said on Twitter that the decision was “probably (just about) right. But there’s an argument that it was scrapped at the wrong time and revived at the wrong time. The drift away from linear channels is becoming a surge now.”
He added in an interview: “It was too early to kill the channel when they did it – there was still a lot of life in linear. But for all the illogicalities, a channel gives you a focus for commissioning and allows you to serve that demographic better.” He suggested that crossover hits like Killing Eve should have been commissioned by BBC One in the first place.
Julian Knight, the chair of the House of Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, said that the decision was “an acknowledgment by the broadcaster that it is failing to reach young audiences.” But he added: “I question whether putting the clock back 5 years is the right way to win over 18-35s.”
The channel will aim for two-thirds of the expanded programming spend to be outside London. The BBC said that it would seek to serve diverse audiences including those from “minority ethnic backgrounds, lower socio-economic groups, often in the north of England, and often with less access to digital on-demand services”.