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‘We underestimate the power of making something easy’: why BBC Three return to TV makes sense

“BBC Three has already shown it is heading in the right direction with Fleabag and Normal People growing audiences organically”

Liz Duff, head of media and investment at Total Media, reflects on the unexpected return of BBC Three to TV screens, laying out why she thinks it may make sense for the Beeb...

When the lights went out on BBC Three back in 2016, few could have predicted that the channel would make a TV comeback in 2022. High running costs and lack of demand were the main reasons cited by the BBC for removing the channel, so what makes it different this time around?

In theory, when the BBC migrated BBC Three to the internet, the move made complete sense. The channel was designed to target younger demographics, and 16- to 25-year-olds congregate online more than linear TV these days. Logical, right?

Well, in reality, the move from linear TV to digital failed to resonate with audiences. The decision ignored the fact that young people aren’t a homogenous group who all behave the same, and that not every viewer would follow the channel online. While some did continue to watch it on iPlayer, others abandoned the channel altogether in favor of streaming platforms and other competitors. The channel simply wasn’t strong enough to maintain a loyal audience online in the long-term

BBC Three’s move online likely wasn’t as successful as hoped due to its inability to cut through the clutter, getting lost instead in the plethora of other content competing for young audiences’ attention. By returning to linear TV, BBC Three will be hoping to build audiences by using the TV schedule to make content discovery easier.

All viewers have to do is turn on their TV and select the channel. Whereas online audiences have to make a conscious effort to watch the channel. In bringing the channel back to screens, the BBC will be able to once again reach casual viewers who are scrolling through the TV guide looking for something to watch – something seldom achieved online. We often underestimate the power of simply making something easy.

The power of content

While lockdown has slowed the decline of young audiences watching linear TV, it hasn’t completely halted the trend. The total number of 16- to 24-year-olds watching linear TV declined by just 8% in 2020, compared to 23% the previous year, but many are predicting that these changed behaviors during lockdown won’t translate into long-term habits for young audiences.

When the channel returns in January 2022, it is likely this declining trend will also have returned as many choose socializing over binge-watching. So while there is an audience here, reaching them through linear TV won’t necessarily be a given.

BBC Three needs to learn from the on-demand ecosystem, providing a flexible offering to meet different audience needs. Making entire series available to watch on-demand from launch is an important criteria in these Netflix-driven days, while also retaining the water-cooler moments of appointment to view event programming to draw people in the channel.

To offset the uncertainty around the staying power of young audiences on linear TV, the quality of its programing will be crucial. We live in an age with the broadest number and range of entertainment options ever, available through streaming platforms such as Netflix, Disney+, YouTube and Amazon Prime Video. Increasingly, viewing behaviors are driven by content rather than channel identity or subscription packages.

We saw a stark example of this on ITV2 in 2020, with the channel experiencing a significant year-on-year drop in young audiences after Love Island was canceled due to the pandemic. Not only will a group of 20-something wannabes be keen for the return of the villa to launch their careers, but ITV2 will also be banking on it as well. If high-quality content is not available in sufficiently high volumes, the BBC will find itself in a similar predicament to where it was five years ago.

BBC Three has already shown it is heading in the right direction with shows such as Fleabag and Normal People achieving international acclaim and growing audiences organically through audience buzz. Shows like these are vital for the channel’s ongoing success, especially by getting people talking about them in the online and offline world.

Following in the footsteps of Netflix, continuing to make content that resonates with a range of diverse audiences and sparks conversation will enable the channel to justify producing similar shows with a higher budget going forward.

Ultimately, in order for BBC Three’s comeback story to be a success, understanding fundamental truths about attracting an audience in the contemporary landscape is crucial. This means taking into account audience loyalty to content over platform, offering a simple route to content and, lastly, making content that generates excitement and interest outside of the spectrum of existing fans.

Liz Duff is head of media and investment at Total Media. Sign up for The Drum’s Future of Media briefing here.