It is six months since the BBC yanked its youth TV channel BBC3 off the airwaves.
A once prosperous home for the millennial audience television finds hard to reach, BBC3 is now a microsite on bbc.co.uk and a patchwork of social media accounts.
The closure was financially motivated, saving £30 million ($39 million) a year, but the BBC dressed it up as a bold mission to connect with young people in an age when TV is increasingly becoming a relic. Either way, it was unprecedented to shutdown such a successful service.
So how’s BBC3’s new birth working out? Well, we haven’t officially been told.
BBC director general Tony Hall provided some insight for the BBC Trust in June, according to minutes published by the governing body last week, but a coherent update on BBC3’s performance is yet to be made public.
And that’s not ideal. Writing off a TV channel that has been the beneficiary of £1 billion ($1.3 billion) of public funding over 13 years demands close attention.
So Business Insider is here to help. We have spoken to TV industry insiders close to the controversial decision and analysed online and TV data in an attempt to make sense of how BBC3 is getting on.
The short answer is this: BBC3 has not fallen off a cliff, but it is not exactly soaring, either. It is early days still, of course, and the channel’s controller Damian Kavanagh has always maintained “it is a marathon and not a sprint.”
There are some encouraging signs, but BBC3 has a long way to go before it can muffle the cries of “I told you so” from the people who vehemently campaigned against its move online. As one TV industry exec told us, the BBC3 team is “playing with two hands behind their back and a terrible deck of cards.”
BBC3’s iPlayer engagement: A troubling fact.
Let’s start with a big, bald fact: Since moving online in February, fewer BBC3 shows have featured in BBC iPlayer’s most-watched charts than in the past four years.
Between February and June (the last time iPlayer stats were published), a total of seven BBC3 shows appeared in the monthly rundowns of the top 20 programmes on iPlayer.
This was down on eight shows over the same period last year — when the BBC pulled back investment in BBC3 amid uncertainty over the channel’s future — and 18 in 2014. The table below shows the four-year trend.
It’s worth bearing in mind that BBC3 has half the cash it had previously and it therefore commissions and acquires fewer programmes. But the iPlayer figures are grist to the mill for those who believe BBC3 is not as potent as it was when it was on television.
Ahead of of the channel’s digital switch, Kavanagh said it would be “fishing where the fish are.” And he’s right, 44% of iPlayer’s users are aged between 16 and 34, meaning more millennials use the online video player than any other age demographic.
So the news that fewer BBC3 shows are failing to break into iPlayer’s most-watched charts is troubling.
Take this example of how some BBC3 programming has hit the skids. “Top Gear” is one of iPlayer’s hottest properties, so it made sense to launch BBC3’s online-only spin-off show “Top Gear: Extra Gear.” But not a single episode of “Top Gear: Extra Gear” made it into the iPlayer top table.
BBC3’s formative months online have been far from a car crash, however. The channel’s shows are often available on iPlayer for much longer than the usual 30-day catch-up window, meaning some shows are quietly amassing very healthy audiences.
BBC3 drama “Thirteen” drama outperforms “Sherlock.”
Kidnap drama “Thirteen” performed better than “Sherlock” special “The Abominable Bride” and is one of iPlayer’s most-watched shows this year with 3 million requests. Honour killing drama “Murdered by My Father” and comedy “Cuckoo” have also cut through.
More recently, documentary “Reggie Yates: The Insider” beat the final episode of “Game of Thrones” series seven in Barb’s online video player report, leading press chief Colin Watkins to claim that BBC3 is “more popular than sex and dragons.”
A BBC spokesman told Business Insider that prior to the online switch, BBC3 accounted for around 4% of all requests on iPlayer. It is now regularly hitting up to 11%, in part thanks to longer catch-up windows and box-sets of shows including “Spinal Tap”-style mockumentary “People Just Do Nothing.”
Many of these programmes are also being repeated on BBC1 and BBC2’s television channels with some success. In late night slots, “Thirteen” averaged a healthy 1.2 million viewers on BBC2, while “Cuckoo” managed 1.4 million for BBC1.
BBC insiders are cheered by this. We have spoken to two senior executives about BBC3’s performance to date and both said there is evidence that the channel is still creatively strong.
But there are frustrations that these creative highs are not getting the recognition they deserve and BBC3 does not yet have a coherent enough identity online.
“Reaching young and diverse audiences is one of the BBC’s biggest challenges and BBC3 should be the Trojan Horse to achieving that aim,” one BBC source said. “While there are really great programmes, it just is not cohesive enough at the moment.”
This struck a chord with Ash Atalla, the managing director of Roughcut TV, which produces BBC3 shows “Cuckoo” and “People Just Do Nothing.” He told us that BBC3 has simply become an iPlayer service.
“I see nothing that makes me think that the decision [to close BBC3 as a TV channel] was a smart one. In fact, it looks worse,” Atalla said.
“It still feels counterintuitive that when trying to make savings — a saving that ended up being very small — that they chose switch off a youth channel. It feels like the brand, the calling card for BBC3, has gone.”
Jono Read, who led the #SaveBBC3 campaign last year, added that it is inevitable that BBC3 will become “more about the individual programmes, rather than the BBC3 brand itself.”
He noted how ITV2 has appeared to benefit from BBC3’s disappearance from the TV schedule. ITV’s youth entertainment channel poached BBC3’s US comedy “Family Guy” as part of the changes and infiltrated the national conversation with dating show “Love Island” earlier this year.
ITV2’s peak time audience (7 p.m. to 10.30 p.m.) is up 9% year-on-year to 449,700 in the first seven months of 2016, according to Barb figures. Channel 4’s millennial channel E4 is also up 6% to 483,000 in primetime. The absence of BBC3 will not have hindered this progress.
BBC3 fighting hard to keep its brand alive through social media.
BBC3 is fighting hard to prevent its brand from fading into TV history. Its young team has been tasked with growing the channel’s social media presence and the numbers are heading in the right direction.
BBC3’s Twitter followers have grown 11% to 719,000 since the online move in February, according to our analysis. BBC3’s YouTube subscribers have more than doubled to 103,000 over the same period, while Facebook likes are up by a fifth to 987,000 year-on-year.
BBC3 had one of its biggest hits so far last week with its “Anchorman”-inspired Premier League season preview, which has racked up more than 18 million views on Facebook at the time this article was published.
It is a more encouraging picture than the iPlayer figures, but should be seen in a context in which BBC3’s closest rivals are also growing their social media footprint.
ITV2, for example, has more Twitter followers than BBC3 (up 6% to 780,000 since February) and Channel 4’s youth service E4 has made similar gains. Vice meanwhile, is miles ahead of BBC3 on YouTube, with a seven million-strong army of followers around the world.
The latter is also launching TV channel Viceland next month — a decision that may have prompted winces among the proponents of BBC3’s online move. One of the world’s foremost youth brands is certainly not of the view that TV is increasingly becoming a relic.
As BBC3 and Vice head off on their different paths, only time will tell who is right. Right now, BBC3 is still enjoying something of a honeymoon period. The media scrutiny has died down and Kavanagh and his team are quietly getting on with the job in hand.
BBC3 team are good people ‘playing with two hands behind their back and a terrible deck of cards.’
There is also goodwill in the TV industry.
After 750 industry captains — including onscreen stars Daniel Radcliffe and Jack Whitehall — signed a letter last year calling for the BBC3 closure plans to be killed, some of the UK’s most powerful producers are now trying to make the best of the situation.
Hat Trick Productions managing director Jimmy Mulville is one such figure. The producer of “Have I Got News for You” led a highly charged industry campaign to keep BBC3 on television.
This boiled over at a BBC comedy producer briefing last year, during which Mulville likened the meeting to a funeral for BBC3. BBC comedy controller Shane Allen also jokingly suggested that the broadcaster had a sniper trained on Mulville’s seat.
But now several months have passed, industry sources have told Business Insider that Mulville has written to BBC3 boss Kavanagh to draw a line under the matter. Hat Trick is now making a comedy pilot for the channel about private tutors, titled “Limbo.”
“People Just Do Nothing” producer Atalla is being similarly pragmatic. “The people working for BBC3 are doing their very best. They are just playing with two hands behind their back and a terrible deck of cards. This is not a failing of that team, it is a failure of the initial decision,” he said.
Read, the #SaveBBC3 campaigner, also wants to see the channel succeed. “I really want to see BBC3 work, but I think it might need more investment to be a success,” he said.
If Read is right, it would present an interesting conundrum for the BBC. BBC3 was reinvented primarily to save money, but after the BBC has made such a big play of connecting with young audiences online, can it really afford to allow the channel to fail?
Almost certainly not is probably the answer to that question — and six months in, there are signs that the blueprint for BBC3 will evolve.
Radio Times reported in February that BBC3 could be merged with youth radio station BBC Radio 1, which has a social media reach that far eclipses its sister service.
This is has now slipped down the agenda as plans for a radical structural overhaul at the BBC never materialised, but an internal source told Business Insider that it is still likely in the “long-term.”
One change the BBC has committed to is moving BBC3’s short-form content and social media teams to Birmingham by 2018, as the broadcaster bids to make the city a digital hub. This will alter the complexion of the channel’s output.
The BBC’s new governance board is expected to carry out a thorough review of BBC3 next year. With the broadcaster so far reluctant to give a coherent picture of BBC3’s health, it is likely to be the first time we truly understand the channel’s direction of travel.
Six months in, the BBC is yet to prove that moving BBC3 online was a good idea.
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