BBC Three audience ‘collapsed’ after channel went digital-only

BBC Three’s audience has “collapsed” since the channel went digital-only, a report has said.

New director-general Tim Davie is currently considering bringing BBC Three back to TV screens as a linear channel, following the success of a string of hit shows.

Aimed at 16 to 34-year-olds, BBC Three has spawned a series of hits, such as Normal People, Killing Eve and Fleabag.

It closed its broadcast channel in 2016, amid changing viewing habits and cost pressures for the broadcaster.

Tim Davie, new director general, is considering bringing back BBC Three as a linear channel
Tim Davie, new director-general, is considering bringing back BBC Three as a linear channel (Andrew Milligan/PA)

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, is down 72%.

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, previously said that resurrecting BBC Three as a linear channel will be on Davie’s “list of early decisions”.

“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.

Normal People was one of the channel's hit shows
Normal People was one of the channel’s hit shows (Enda Bowe/BBC/PA)

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”.

Its author, Neil Thurman, honorary senior research fellow in the department of journalism at City, University of London, said most of its viewers still watch the channel the traditional way.

He 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,” he said.

He said that “the size of BBC Three’s 16 to 34-year-old target audience shrank more than the size of its 35-plus audience”.

“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,’” he added.

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.

“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.”

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

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