BBC Three could return to TV after figures reveal audience 'collapsed' as digital-only channel

Normal People has been a big hit for BBC Three. (BBC)
Normal People has been a big hit for BBC Three. (BBC)

BBC Three could be brought back to TV after it was revealed its audience “collapsed” when the channel went digital-only.

New BBC director-general Tim Davie is currently considering reviving the linear channel, which was aimed at 16- to 34-year-olds, following the success of shows such as Normal People, Killing Eve and Fleabag.

In 2016 the broadcaster made the decision to make BBC Three online-only in a bid to reduce costs and reflect the viewing habits of younger audiences - who favour streaming platforms.

Research service Enders Analysis compared viewing figures for the year before it went digital-only with the 12 months to November 2019.

It said viewing of BBC Three content, including BBC Three programmes shown on other BBC linear TV channels, was down 72%.

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In terms of the channel itself – on BBC iPlayer and not taking into account its shows airing on other channels – viewing minutes fell 89%.

The channel’s controller Fiona Campbell has previously said that resurrecting BBC Three as a linear channel will be on Davie’s “list of early decisions”.

Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'. (Credit: BBC)
Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in Fleabag. (BBC)

“The corporation has got quite significant savings to make across the piece, so there’s a bigger picture in which it has to be weighed within,” she said.

The report states that “despite numerous examples of critical acclaim for BBC Three programming over the last couple of years, the evidence suggests that its audience has collapsed since the closure of its linear TV channel in 2016”.

Author Neil Thurman, honorary senior research fellow in the department of journalism at City, University of London, said the BBC is right to be considering bringing the channel back to linear television if it wants to attract more attention from its target audience.

“Not only has the time spent with the channel been hugely reduced, but most (79%) of the online viewing is still via television sets,” he said.

“The size of BBC Three’s weekly and monthly audience, in common with most of its competitor TV channels, was declining before it reinvented itself online.

“However, its decision to stop broadcasting resulted in sharp drops.”

'Killing Eve' debited on BBC Three but also aired on other BBC channels. (BBC)
Killing Eve debuted on BBC Three but also aired on other BBC channels. (BBC)

He said the size of BBC Three’s target audience shrank more than the size of its 35-plus audience, adding: “This raises doubts about whether, in the context of youth channels like BBC Three, young audiences are, as the BBC’s ex-director-general Tony Hall suggested, ‘most ready to move to an online world’.”

A BBC spokesman said: “BBC Three is not a traditional TV channel so it should be no surprise it’s not consumed like one; when we moved online we wanted to grow younger audiences coming to iPlayer and it’s working, with 412 million total requests for BBC Three programmes in the past 12 months, a 57% increase year on year.

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“Time spent with BBC Three content is also growing, up by 37% this year as more young viewers discover shows like Normal People, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, This Country, Young Offenders and Glow Up.

“As set out in the annual plan, we are committed to better serve young audiences and will double the amount we spend on BBC Three commissions over the next two years.”

Normal People – a teenage love story starring Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal – was a big hit for BBC Three during the coronavirus lockdown.

BBC Three shows such as Killing Eve and Fleabag have been shown on other channels.