Six months on: Has BBC Three lost viewers since going online?
Ivan Radford | On 23, Aug 2016Reading time: 6 mins
Six months ago, BBC Three became the first TV channel in the UK to switch online. The move, which was driven primarily by the need to make savings, has pitched the Beeb into brand new territory for a national broadcaster. Has the experiment been a success?
Figures from BARB and Thinkbox suggest that the move has not been entirely positive, with the BBC’s broadcast TV viewing dropping 8 per cent year-on-year between March and May 2016.
The drop is more pronounced among 16-34s, BBC Three’s core audience, for whom viewing dropped by 18 per cent.
“With iPlayer viewing flat across the same period as reported in the latest iPlayer performance pack, it appears that the BBC has lost the viewing BBC Three previously provided,” comments Thinkbox. “This underlines the continued importance of having a broadcast TV channel alongside an online VOD service.”
Indeed, broadcast TV channels remain a major force in today’s media landscape, with live and linear TV still making up the majority of viewing for British audiences; while VOD usage is on the up, it is still very much a growing trend. It is no coincidence, for example, that All 4’s Walter Presents, an on-demand hub for foreign language TV, regularly uses More4 and Channel 4 to launch or broadcast entire shows that are then available online.
The report arrives as Viceland, a new channel from media brand Vice, prepares to launch on Sky in the UK. Figures also show that for the first half of this year, average commercial TV viewing on a TV set increased to 2 hours, 24 minutes a day, an increase of 1 minute on the same period in 2015 and 7 minutes more a day than a decade ago.
“TV is thriving on all screens, but the importance of TV channels on TV sets cannot be overlooked. They remain the first port of call for the majority of people of all ages. The apparent boost that commercial TV has received from BBC Three’s disappearance from the schedules underlines this fact – a strategy that is in stark contrast to the imminent arrival of Viceland on commercial TV,” comments Thinkbox’s Research and Planning Director, Matt Hill.
“It is likely that the closure of BBC Three’s broadcast TV channel in February is partly responsible for a dip in BBC TV viewing and commercial TV’s strong performance – in particular the viewing of 16-34s,” concludes Thinkbox.
However, it is important to bear in mind that the figures quoted by Thinkbox for commercial TV are for the whole first half of 2016, rather than the March to May period quoted for all of the BBC channels, which means that like-for-like comparisons are not entirely accurate. Thinkbox is also the marketing body for commercial TV channels, releasing its report just as Vice, a new commercial channel, begins its own marketing push.
The Barb viewing figures also do not take into account the online viewing figures for the BBC: while linear viewers have naturally declined in the BBC Three bracket, partly because the programmes they watched are no longer on air via the BBC in the same form, many of them may still be tuning in over the web.
Indeed, the BBC cites recent reports that linear TV viewing in BBC Three’s 16-34 target audience has fallen 27 per cent over the last five years, that time spent online has tripled to nine hours a day and over 90 per cent of this age group own a smartphone and at least one social media account.
On BBC iPlayer, original drama Thirteen, which launched the channel, is now the most requested show for the year, with 3 million requests. The five-part contemporary British drama from new writer Marnie Dickens is ahead of England v Wales at Euro 2016, which had 2.8m requests. To date in 2016, BBC Three has accounted for seven of the top 20 most requested programmes of the year, including Murdered By My Father (1.8m requests) and the first episode of Greg Davies comedy Cuckoo (1.5m requests). Other shows to pass the 1m request mark include Stacey Dooley’s Sex In Strange Places, Life And Death Row, Reggie Yates The Insider and new BBC Three comedy Fleabag, starring Phoebe Waller Bridge.
At launch, BBC Three made up 4 per cent of BBC iPlayer requests, but now reaches over 10 per cent in some weeks – something that, curiously, is true, despite the channel producing fewer programmes.
While the BBC’s move was originally prompted by budgeting pressures, meanwhile, the Beeb has simultaneously developed a new strategy to engage an online audience.
BBC Three explicitly aims to be “platform agnostic”, investing 20 per cent of its £30m budget in content that isn’t long-form TV, including short-form video, written articles, animation and native content for Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter.
The move appears to be paying off: since launch, BBC Three has doubled its YouTube subscribers and increased view time threefold. This is due to content such as mockumentary #HoodDocumentary starring Kayode Ewumi that is about to pass 1 million views and hard-hitting documentary Drugs Map of Britain, with both available to third party sites to embed.
“Facebook video Things People With Down’s Syndrome Are Tired Of Hearing achieved 109,000 likes, 12m views, 195,000 shares and 6.5k comments in under a week and last week BBC Three’s Premier League/Anchorman mash-up had over 290,000 shares and 20m views on Facebook with a further 11’000 shares on @BBCThree’s Twitter account,” notes the BBC.
BBC Three has also grown its social media subscribers since launch and now has 997k likes on Facebook – ahead of E4’s 768k, ITV2’s 403k and ViceUK’s 60k, although behind BuzzfeedUK’s 1.3m – and 721k Twitter followers – ahead of E4’s 117k, Buzzfeed UK’s 167k, and Vice UK’s 378k, but behind ITV2’s 781k – plus 44k followers on Instagram (compared to E4’s 5k, BuzzfeedUK’s 81k and ViceUK’s 14k.
How do those compare to viewing figures for commercial TV channels? That’s hard to say. And, indeed, that’s the whole point: BBC Three’s success is being measured in a different way to the traditional TV industry.
Damian Kavanagh, Controller BBC Three, says: “These are still early days for BBC Three and I’m incredibly proud of what we have achieved in such a short space of time. I’m delighted young people love our shows like Thirteen, Fleabag, Drugs Map of Britain and Chasing Dad. We’re contributing more to iPlayer than before and that’s with fewer shows, and when our shows are on BBC One and Two they’re attracting more young people than before.”
Has the experiment been a success? Six months in and the BBC is still finding out – and, while young viewers are changing the way they watch TV, that change is more gradual than it can sometimes seem.
That’s the problem with trying something new: ironically enough, BBC Three may simply have to watch for audiences to catch up.
“Reinventing the BBC’s offer for young people won’t happen overnight,” adds Kavanagh. “It’s a marathon not a sprint, but the early signs are very encouraging.”
What’s on BBC Three? See our weekly guide to what’s coming soon to the channel, as well as our fornightly BBC Three column that reviews what’s new and worth watching.
Photo: Sophie Mutevelian