Quo Vadis BBC3?

On 16th February 2016, BBC3 moved from our TV schedules to become an online only channel. In a recent article on the Radio Times website, journalist Ben Dowell talked to BBC3 Controller, Damian Kavanagh in an attempt to assess the performance of the channel after the controversial migration.


At first glance, BBC3 gives the impression of a homeless child, lost within the depths of the Internet. Its programmes are hidden away on iPlayer, the content budget has been cut from £85m to £30m, which when broken down means that £10m is now spent on comedy, £10m on factual and serious, £3m for drama with whatever is left over being spent on 'other content' like short YouTube-like videos.


And while it may be true that changes to its audience's viewing habits have made 3's online-only presence a more favourable proposition than it would have been a few years ago, less than 50% of the videos consumed by 16-24 year olds is now via 'live' TV (back in 2003 it was 100%), with over 90% of the demographic owning owning smartphones and having at least one social media account.


So why was the BBC reluctant to fully embrace the move?


Executives who proposed the closure of BBC3 now accept that with hit shows like Gavin and Stacey, Being Human and the BAFTA winner Our War, their decision was one they would with hindsight, not make again.  And when Director of Television, Danny Cohen (also a former BBC3 controller) first considered the plan more than a year before the migration, he had a strong suspicion it would not only be unpopular with viewers but that it was happening a lot quicker than he would have preferred. Yet Cohen also understood the cash-strapped BBC had no other choice.


The reaction wasn't long in coming. Poldark's Aidan Turner, Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe and Broadchurch's Olivia Colman were among the first of a whole host of top actors to sign an open letter in protest at what they regarded as the “unthinkable” decision to close a channel “which had given some of the most successful and influential names currently working in British television” their first stab at acting success.


This same view was held by more than 24,000 anti-closure campaigners who actively bombarded the BBC Trust with requests to rethink the move. And even the heads of independent production company heads like Jon Thoday of Avalon and Jimmy Mulville of Hat Trick stepped in with  offers of around £100m to buy the channel.


But while the Trust admitted it was a difficult decision, the writing was on the wall and it approved the closure – despite giving a clear warning in its report that up to 740,000 BBC3's young audience who didn't watch other BBC channels might be lost to the Corporation forever.


Six months down the line, how is BBC3 doing since its move online?


BBC3's first drama after its move was Marnie Dickens’s five-part kidnap mystery, Thirteen, with Jodie Comer in the starring role. Enthusiastic viewer interest was quickly followed by critical acclaim and up till now, the first episode has been watched on iPlayer 3 million times with the lion's share of downloads following in the first week after it became available.


Murdered by My Father, the one-off honour killing drama has currently clocked up 1.8m requests, with the series three opener of the comedy Cuckoo by Greg Davies and Taylor Lautner attracting 1.5m download requests. The Sex in Strange Places: Turkey documentary also received an impressive 1.3m requests.


And how does this compare with BBC3's performance when it was a broadcast channel?


Of course, direct comparisons aren't really possible, but we can say that towards the end of their life on the airwaves, some of BBC3’s biggest successes included the Season 3 opener of Bluestone 42. The bomb disposal comedy brought in just under 1 million viewers and as a whole the series averaged about half of that number. On a daily basis, episodes of US animated import Family Guy and repeats of EastEnders were among 3's most regular hits, drawing around 600-800,000 more or less regular viewers. And it's true that shows like Bluestone attracted extra views on iPlayer, but when the first episode of Thirteen was shown on BBC2 it picked up another seen by another 1.1 million viewers.


So all in all, the post-move figures compare favourably. And there’s definitive evidence that BBC3’s iPlayer numbers are growing. Since it moved online, BBC3 shows average more than 7% of iPlayer requests, a rise of 4.5% since before the move. No one can be certain if the difference is made up of BBC3's 16-24 year-old main target demographic, but it seems a reasonable assumption.


BBC3 controller Damian Kavanagh is keen to point out that audiences are being reached in other ways too and is quoted as saying, “We have some very good minds working on this.” These 'other ways' could include the Stacey Dooley's live Snapchat reports of the aftermath of the Cologne attacks in Germany, or the more than 12,000 people who shared the Facebook post of the BBC3 short film, Things Not To Ask An Autistic person. And then there's is the content viewed on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr to also be considered.


“We can’t say every Facebook interaction equals an equivalent to what happens on television. We are working on that at the moment,” says Kavanagh. “The BBC Trust will review what we are doing after 18 months and we will report back as usual at the next annual report.” And he goes on, “What I'm most excited by is the new content we're making,” adds Kavanagh. “Freed from the constraints of a schedule we now make all kinds of content at different lengths." He notes the running time of 73 minutes for Murdered By My Father, the length the producers asked for  and something that couldn't or wouldn't have happened on a scheduled TV programme.


The article reports that Kavanagh is “really heartened” by the channel's performance and his gut feeling is that “BBC3 feels like a more distinctive proposition” now. When asked whether he believes BBC3 is being consumed by more or fewer people now it is online, he is wary. “It’s too early for us to say but those eyeballs are on us in different ways,” he says. There are also other factors to consider. “It’s about backing young UK talent now. It’s for young people,” he adds.


“Something like Things Not to Say to An Autistic Person are rather more important than people watching the fifth repeat of Family Guy. For me that is much more important, much more powerful. It’s taken audiences a while to get a grip of what we are doing. BBC3 has been a channel for a decade and they are getting used to the new way we are doing things. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We are doing something different and we have to take that audience with us.”



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