The BBC Trust has approved plans to move BBC Three online next year.
The proposed reinvention of the channel as an online-only service has been controversial ever since it was first suggested, but the Trust identified “clear long-term potential” in the new online service, which would effectively save the Beeb £30m a year.
The Trust noted that BBC Three’s audience is “currently falling” and that its target audience of 16 to 34 year olds are more likely than any other group to use online video services.
“The BBC is right to anticipate the need to serve this audience in new ways,” said the trust, arguing that the online channel “will be more distinctive than the existing BBC Three channel”.
The concerns from fans is that the younger audience could be lost to the broadcaster, while the less established talent showcased and nurtured by the channel could also suffer.
The Trust has included several conditions with its approval to tackle these obstacles, noting that there are some viewers who do not have reliable broadband or do not watch other BBC channels.
The first is a carefully managed transition to the web platform, to ensure that awareness of the change is high – this could also include a period of running both services in parallel.
At the same time, the Trust has called for “clearer commitments” to shows on BBC One and Two that appeal to Three’s younger audience, an initiative that would be supported by continuing to broadcast BBC Three shows on the other channels – Don’t Tell the Bride, for example, has already made the jump to BBC One.
Finally, the Trust has requested a “commitment to a space on broadcast television (not just on BBC Three online) where risks can be taken with new talent and new ideas of the sort that BBC Three has been successful in developing”.
The Trust has also approved the development of BBC iPlayer beyond its original remit as a catch-up service to become a platform in its own right that includes “more online-first and third party content”. Indeed, the Beeb has placed growing emphasis on the site as an exclusive showcase for talent, from young poets (Women Who Spit) and comedians (Muslim Comedy Shorts) to the early premiere of Peter Kay’s sitcom, Car Share.
The BBC Three budget for 2017/18 is expected to be £30m, half of its current budget, savings that will be used to fund original drama for BBC One – although the Trust has encouraged the broadcaster to commission drama that would appeal to younger viewers.
BBC Trust Chairman Rona Fairhead said: “It is clear that the long-term future of broadcasting is online and the BBC needs to find new and exciting ways to help audiences make that transition, while bearing down on costs overall.
“We know young audiences are already moving towards the online future, but we do recognise that in the short term some of them will feel the immediate impact of the BBC Three proposals. We are therefore asking the BBC for commitments to ensure it uses the full range of its television services to better serve young people and others who make up BBC Three’s audience.”
The Trust also rejected proposals for a new BBC One+1 channel and approved plans to extent CBBC’s running time by two hours until 9pm.
“We welcome the Trust’s provisional conclusion, which is the next step in delivering our vision for a new BBC Three. With a frozen licence fee and the BBC’s income cut by 26 per cent we have had to make some very difficult choices, however our plans will allow us to innovate with new ideas and new forms of content for younger audiences,” commented a BBC spokesperson.
“We’ll now consider the areas the Trust have asked us to address and respond in due course.”