Return of BBC Three shows linear TV is not quite dead yet
Yanking channel was ‘a bit mad’, but future interest of younger viewers must be in doubt
The Young Offenders with Chris Walley, Hilary Rose and Alex Murphy was a BBC Three commission in association with RTÉ. Photograph: Vico Films/BBC
In a sign that nobody knows anything, least of all the people who run massive media organisations, the BBC has decided that BBC Three should be a proper linear channel after all.
This is awkward, as it took it off electronic programme guides (EPGs) in 2016, and by the time it returns from its online-only exodus in January 2022 there will have been a gap of almost six years. Six years is a long time in the life of a teenager whose future decades of brand loyalty the BBC was presumably trying to sew up.
It’s the kind of eggy-faced about-turn that makes me long for a one-off special of W1A, the BBC Two comedy about the, er, BBC – not least because BBC Three’s logo (written as II! against a hot pink background) looks like it was workshopped into being by W1A “head of brand” Siobhan Sharpe.
BBC Three is still only 18 years old, but its fate has long been intertwined with that of Irish talent. Back in its linear days, comedy series Pulling became the breakthrough vehicle for its co-writer and star Sharon Horgan, while cult drama Being Human featured Aidan Turner, Sinéad Keenan and Damien Molony in lead roles.
The British television industry’s proximity to the Irish one has been even clearer in BBC Three’s post-2016 life, with Normal People providing the obvious example. The Element Pictures series – the subject of Irish ministerial congratulations every time it is nominated for awards – was originally commissioned by BBC Three before securing support from like minds at US streaming service Hulu and becoming an on-demand hit during Lockdown 1.0.
An adaptation of Sally Rooney’s first novel, Conversations with Friends, is following a similar path, although we can but hope we are out of lockdown by the time it makes it to screens.
There are other instances, too, where working relationships between the Irish industry and BBC Three made a difference. The Young Offenders, a 2016 feature film about Cork teenagers by writer-director Peter Foott and Irish production company Vico Films, made a refreshingly good transition to television comedy when it was commissioned by BBC Three in 2017, though on this occasion the series was “in association with RTÉ”, meaning RTÉ chipped in at the outset rather than simply acquiring it as it did with Normal People. Its third series was shown last summer.
BBC Three was also the home to Blindboy Undestroys the World, a five-part 2019 series that began with the satirist and podcaster “launching a fierce polemic on the nation’s housing system” – the UK housing system. (At the time, Blindboy tweeted that he would have “loved to focus on the Irish housing crisis, but RTÉ would have to ask me to make that, and they didn’t”.)
Ironically, as all these intriguing commissions were happening, the online-only BBC Three wasn’t strictly available to viewers in the Republic, unless they did something fancy with a virtual private network (VPN), as a result of the BBC iPlayer’s continued non-availability outside the UK. Many BBC Three shows did pop up on “grown-up” BBC One or Two – with the W1A-ish blurb “BBC Three on BBC One” – but they didn’t all command high-profile slots like Normal People.
The BBC reversal, made under pressure from UK regulator Ofcom to better serve younger audiences, will hopefully see BBC Three reclaim a spot on the EPGs of pay-TV operators in the Irish market next year. I say hopefully because you don’t have to be in its 16-34-year-old target audience to recognise a decent hit rate, while its backing of new comedy – Irish or otherwise – can hardly go amiss in these subdued times either.
In the meantime, the mistimed yanking of the channel in 2016 serves as a cautionary tale for broadcasters wondering when, if ever, the end might come for linear television. (“Absolutely not,” RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said in 2019 when asked if RTÉ2 might be wound down.)
Taking BBC Three off linear was done in the main to save money, with the argument that younger audiences weren’t watching traditional channels anyway coming after.
For the BBC, the accounts balancing would have seemed a far more clear-cut exercise than it would for other broadcasters as it had no associated advertising stream to lose. Its move was still a mistake.
Even broadcasters such as Sky that are far less dependent on advertising for their overall revenues than the likes of ITV or even RTÉ continue to believe in the value of linear channels.
Sky is among the pay-TV operators to grant greater proximity to on-demand options with every interface redesign, while its broadcasting business has described overnight television ratings as “meaningless to us” given the extent to which audiences watch its content on-demand. However, Sky not only maintains its linear channels, it has launched four new ones since October 2019 (Crime, Comedy, Documentaries, Nature) and rebranded a fifth (the joint venture Sky History).
“The channels are the shop window. Why wouldn’t you have them?” Sky UK and Ireland director of content Zai Bennett put it on a visit to Dublin in 2017, the year after BBC Three, the channel he used to run, went dark – a decision he thought was “a bit mad”.
But with the drift to on-demand among younger viewers having accelerated since then, the jury must surely be out on whether the return of BBC Three as a linear channel will do much more than please older viewers – the audience old enough to have been excited by the concept of a “BBC Three” in the first place, yet still young enough to tolerate its exclamation marks.
Indeed, with the BBC admitting as far back as 2018 that 16-24-year-olds were consuming more Netflix than any of its television services, including the iPlayer, the bang of “two wrongs don’t make a right” isn’t too far away here.
The only sensible thing to do is recommission W1A immediately and let its cast talk it out.