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The curious case of BBC Three

Back in early 2016, before Brexit soiled our national trousers, the BBC decided to get in early and dampen things by shutting down the broadcast channel for BBC Three, its youth-oriented service. It made BBC Three “online first”.

The way people watch TV is changing – and young people are at the vanguard of this – but the decision to forego a BBC Three broadcast channel was rightly described as “years too early” by Ofcom’s CEO, Sharon White, at Freeview and Digital UK’s recent ‘Outside the Box’ conference.

That said, the BBC’s decision was a boon for commercial TV viewing at least. In the immediate aftermath of the channel closure, the BBC’s 16-34 viewing plunged by 18% as young TV viewers went elsewhere, with ITV2 enjoying a 27% increase in 16-34 viewing and E4 an extra 4%.

But it wasn’t just an own goal for the BBC; it was an own goal for TV. At the time, the BBC positioned the decision as reflective of modern viewing habits. This super-charged the false narrative that young people don’t watch (broadcast) TV any more.

This wasn’t the case then and isn’t the case now, but they made it look as though it was. A grain of truth looked like a warehouse packed with the stuff.

While younger viewers certainly do watch less broadcast TV and more on-demand TV than previous generations (who only had broadcast TV), broadcast TV continues to make up 43% of 16-34s’ total video diet (69% of their TV diet).  That’s over 2 hours a day and quite a large chunk of viewing to ignore. Why wouldn’t you provide both when the evidence shows that viewers – young and old – want both?

‘The Age of Television’ research by MTM found that there are 8 different reasons we watch TV or other forms of video. You can read all about it here, but in a nutshell they found that live TV is the most popular way to fulfil 7 out of 8 of those needs. Of course, it is video horses for courses – online video excels at fulfilling our need for practical advice for example; broadcaster and subscription demand TV are particularly good at helping us lose ourselves in other worlds. But what shines through is that watching TV as it is broadcast, with other people is still an incredibly important part of the mix.

And this is what many BBC Three shows have been missing out on for the last two and half years. It had a taste of what broadcast TV does for a show with the excellent Killing Eve, which people could either watch as a box set or watch broadcast on BBC One (they did both).

A look at the how Killing Eve’s series average audience of 9 million broke down is revealing. 36% watched on demand before it was shown on broadcast TV; 28% watched live on BBC One on the TV set; a further 30% watched it on-demand on TV set (BVOD or playback); plus 6% watched on demand after broadcast via a device.

This is a great example of how to have the best of both TV worlds. It was a great show – and perhaps that is why the BBC deemed it worth broadcasting – but showing it on broadcast TV turbo-charged its fame. It gave it the momentum, the word of mouth and the oxygen of exposure that helped make it a hit – and made it feel like a hit even if you didn’t watch it.

The producer of The Grand Tour on Amazon – the new show for the old team from Top Gear – mentioned at a Royal Television Society event last year that Clarkson and co. found it frustrating going on demand only because it meant there was no buzz around the show, no tabloid headlines, no sense of impact, no idea how many people were watching, and that they had to do a lot more marketing work. How many Killing Eves are missing out on bigger audiences because they’re “online first” … and last?

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