The challenges and opportunities of reinventing BBC Three as a ‘new service’

The challenges and opportunities of reinventing BBC Three as a ‘new service’

With the closure of BBC Three as a linear channel, we explore the issues surrounding its reinvention as an online service.  What will be the likely impact on its existing audience and the wider viewing landscape? And how can the new service successfully reach and serve young people?   

BBC Three switched over to an online service on the 16th February, and there has been considerable debate surrounding the likely outcomes of the move.  The switchover is being made against a backdrop of budgetary pressures facing the BBC, the rise of global content providers and increased online viewing among the channel’s youth target audience.  The reinvention of BBC Three marks the first ever closure of a BBC broadcast channel, and formed part of a vision described by the BBC’s former Director of Television, Danny Cohen, as “the biggest strategic decision that the BBC has made in over a decade”.  Of course, the proposed switchover of BBC Three was met with considerable opposition, including the SaveBBC3 social media campaign, an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons and, more recently, mixed reactions to the channel’s new app-friendly logo.

The switch from a broadcast to online service represents a landmark for the TV landscape in the UK.  Against this backdrop, it’s worth considering the likely impact of the change on existing audiences and other services, and the potential future course for the new service. 

Existing BBC Three viewing habits and motivations

In June 2015, Ofcom published its Market Impact Assessment (MIA) of the proposed changes to BBC Three on consumers and producers of other services.  As part of the evidence base, Kantar Media conducted qualitative research into motivations for watching broadcast TV, catch-up TV and video on demand (VOD); and to explore the potential impact of the BBC’s proposals on audience behaviours.  The research uncovered a range of insights around the existing habits and attitudes of BBC Three viewers, which provide valuable clues to the likely impact of the channel’s forthcoming switchover.  

The research showed that BBC Three viewers and the wider 16 to 34 target audience were indeed quick to express a preference for non-linear viewing.  The younger viewers particularly appreciated the personalisation offered by VOD services and the ability to binge-watch series.  However, if anything, BBC Three viewing bucked this trend, with a preference for watching the linear channel.  BBC Three was widely seen as an effortless ‘flicking’ channel, with people often stumbling upon content while winding down at the end of the day.  The channel was strongly associated with light and entertaining content, with expectations set by stand-out programmes like Family Guy and American Dad.  This contrasted with people’s use of non-linear services, which were associated with more active viewing, making an effort to choose specific content items, and immersing in entire series.  With BBC Three appearing to meet different needs to online services, this raises questions regarding the impact of the closure of the linear channel.

The likely impact of the BBC Three switchover

While a move online resonates strongly with the general preferences of younger viewers, it’s somewhat at odds with BBC Three’s prominent role in fulfilling ‘wind-down’ late evening needs.  The existing service clearly stands out as a staging post for youth-orientated content as viewers scroll through their EPGs.  Wider trends add weight to BBC Three being synonymous with such effortless late-evening consumption, with viewing figures for the channel plateauing in recent years amidst the possible influences of budgetary constraints and the rise of VOD services. 

Viewers’ responses to the proposed changes to BBC Three generally balance an appreciation of the growth of online viewing, with a bias towards the status quo and the valued effortless nature of the broadcast channel.  As a result, it may be difficult for an online BBC Three to retain its late evening audience.  Indeed, our research suggests that viewers entrenched in their habits will be more likely, initially at least, to migrate to other channels that offer similarly light, youth-orientated content (e.g. Dave, E4, and ITV2).  If anything, this has been made all the more likely by ITV2’s recent acquisition of long-standing BBC Three favourites, Family Guy and American Dad.  Similarly, BBC Three viewers are likely to migrate to BBC One and BBC Two along with programmes such as Don’t Tell the Bride and Russell Howard’s Good News

It seems less likely that catch-up and VOD services will be significant beneficiaries of BBC Three’s move online.  As shown in the research, BBC Three’s target audience currently associate such services with much more active viewing decisions.  In the case of catch up, viewing is associated with scheduled programmes missed or recommended, with VOD linked to immersing in series or watching films. 

With the online BBC Three departing from traditional strengths in effortless viewing, it’s likely that different strategies will need to be pursued to continue to reach and serve younger viewers.  

Envisioning BBC Three as a ‘new service’ 

“I think this can be transformational for both the BBC’s relationship with young audiences and the BBC’s approach to the digital age overall.  When we take BBC Three online we need to see it as a brand new service launch.”

On the announcement of the proposed changes to BBC Three, Danny Cohen envisioned the move as the launch of a “brand new service”.  In many respects, this resonates with the perceived differences between an online VOD service and the effortless linear experience previously associated with the channel.  With the reinvented BBC Three breaking new ground as a ‘broadcast-born’ online channel, its strategy needs to be informed by existing content strengths as well as learnings from established VOD services. 

  • Building awareness: The overarching challenge facing the new BBC Three is making young viewers aware that a significant online service lives on and that a valued channel hasn’t simply disappeared.  Of course, awareness hasn’t traditionally been an issue for BBC Three, with a prime EPG slot helping the channel firmly establish itself as a first port of call for youth content.  Without the familiarity and serendipity of the linear offer, the new BBC Three needs to retain positive brand expectations while actively promoting the personalisation and convenience of an on-demand service.         
  • Cross-promotion with other BBC servicesThe move of legacy BBC Three titles to BBC One and BBC Two presents an ideal opportunity to promote online content and nudge viewers towards the new service.  Likewise, opportunities should be taken to actively promote the new BBC Three to those consuming other youth orientated content across BBC TV, radio and online services.  There are also potential synergies between BBC Three and youth content provided by services such as BBC Radio 1 and BBC Sport, and BBC Three can aim to be the BBC’s youth hub rather than being perceived as an iPlayer sub-brand.           
  • Attention-grabbing contentSince its launch in 2003, BBC Three has established itself as a leading provider of high-quality comedy and drama content for young audiences.  Content is king in the world of VOD services, and BBC Three needs to continue to offer innovative and attention-grabbing programmes to nudge viewers online and cultivate youth audiences.  Indeed, the continued success of global providers such as Netflix has been heavily influenced by the draw of buzz-generating ‘must-see’ original titles such as House of Cards and Making a Murderer.  While the new BBC Three’s budget will be halved, there are indications that spend will be focused on the comedy and drama output that helps the service stand apart.           
  • Intelligent & social recommendations: The new BBC Three faces the challenge of easing and inspiring viewers’ content choices in the absence of a curated linear schedule.  In this respect, BBC Three should look to follow the course of established VOD services and provide more nimble behaviourally generated suggestions based on users’ previous viewing habits.  There are also significant opportunities for BBC Three to harness social media to seamlessly introduce young audiences to its online content.  Social media and video-sharing services can be exploited to both raise awareness through user interactions with programmes and personalities, and to host short-form content to encourage viewers to further engage with BBC Three.  
  • An immersive experienceWith young people’s expectations of on-demand services heavily linked with binge-watching content, BBC Three must aim to offer a similarly immersive experience.  Our research showed how young people embraced services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Instant Video to binge on whole series, and used YouTube to journey through a multitude of short-from videos.  With BBC Three programmes likely to be hosted online for 30 days and regularly reposted, there’s potential for viewers to delve deeper than single episodes.  With BBC Three delivered online, there are also significant opportunities to seamlessly link to programme websites and extra content, and a wealth of associated BBC TV, radio and web output.                          
  • Ease of access: Finally, the new online BBC Three must meet young people’s user-experience expectations shaped by the often-slick offers of leading VOD providers.  Content must be easy to find and consume to avoid discouraging viewers, with access optimised for the range of mobile devices that youth audiences often favour.  The visually engaging BBC Three website with its ‘Daily Drop’ of content should serve as a focal point, and avoids the brand and its programmes becoming lost among the depth of material available on iPlayer.  A BBC Three app would further help the service stand alone as a youth hub and boosts brand attribution, while offering the potential to push daily content suggestions to users.             

A potential milestone in the future course of TV in the UK

On its launch in 2003, BBC Three stood at the forefront of digital broadcasting, and helped the BBC serve the needs of a difficult-to-reach youth audience.  This year’s reinvention of BBC Three presents a similar opportunity for the BBC to lead the way in the rise of online broadcasting.  While there are as many challenges as opportunities for the new service, it has the potential to make significant strides along the pathway sketched out above.  The progress of BBC Three as a ‘new service’ will certainly offer invaluable insights into the potential future course of broadcasting in the UK.  



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