"Younger audiences are increasingly moving online, on-demand,” said BBC director-general Tony Hall last week, as he announced plans to close BBC3 and host its output on BBC iPlayer.
Yet E4, one of BBC3’s main competitors, is showing that broadcast channels aimed at a younger demographic are far from a thing of the past, with its biggest audience ever tuning in to a blend of high-profile US imports like The Big Bang Theory, The Tomorrow People and How I Met Your Mother, along with similarly successful homegrown shows like Made in Chelsea and My Mad Fat Diary.
“I think the idea that channels for young audiences are coming to an end is wrong,” says Jay Hunt, Channel 4 and E4’s creative head. “E4 has young [television] audiences that are larger than Channel 5 and BBC2… Yes, we’re experimenting with how they consume content in different ways – whether that’s on mobile, the short-form strategy that we’re looking at or premiering things on 4OD – but we’re still seeing large young audiences both on E4 and on Channel 4. That just shows that the traditional way of watching is still hugely potent for young people.”
The numbers back that up. E4 had its best year to date in 2013, and has since recorded its most successful start to a year. January and February drew an overall UK audience share just shy of 2%, rising to 5.3% for the channel’s key demographic of 16-34 year olds, and widening the gap between its two main rivals BBC3, with 3.25% of that audience, and ITV2, which drew 3.89% (and for the first time briefly dipped below E4 in terms of its total audience, too).
E4’s continuing success is down to its programming, a combination of those big-hitting transatlantic acquisitions along with original British shows that are starting to match them in terms of audience figures.
Geek-powered US sitcom The Big Bang Theory has been climbing steadily since it came to E4 in 2008, with one episode from the current series drawing a consolidated audience of 2.8 million – the kind of stats Channel 4 itself would be happy with (and which BBC2 wouldn’t sniff at).
Zooey Deschanel's quirky flatshare comedy New Girl pulls in around 1m per episode, while Friends replacement How I Met Your Mother has recently been averaging 1.4m. New acquisition Brooklyn Nine-Nine – the police comedy starring Adam Samberg – is doing similar numbers, while sci-fi thriller The Tomorrow People was the channel’s biggest launch ever, with the first episode in January watched by 2 million.
At the same time, E4 has seen its in-house output keep pace with the Americans. Teen soap Hollyoaks has increased its audience by over 20% – to 1.1 million per episode – and Bafta-winning structured reality show Made in Chelsea recently pulled in 1.4 million for a single instalment. Meanwhile, newly commissioned street magician Troy conjured up 1 million viewers for his first episode, and 90s-set teen drama My Mad Fat Diary is impressing critics as well as viewers, returning for a second run with another cool million, and weeks later being nominated for two Royal Television Society Awards.
“E4 has increasingly become a home for the very best of the American content,” says Hunt. “We’ve bought well over the past few years… But the other half of the story that I think is as important – probably more important – for British audiences is the success we’ve had with original programming. To see something like My Mad Fat Diary, with a brilliant young star like Sharon Rooney, really cutting through with young audiences, and launching Troy with the following that he’s already got, has been hugely exciting… We’re growing a whole new generation of stars.”
Channel 4 has traditionally been known for its risk-taking output and Hunt reckons much of the success of it's bespoke British content is down to the same ethos. It's not quite the kind of edginess C4 is famed for – and a David Blaine copycat and a long-running soap opera aren't necessarily groundbreaking – but Made in Chelsea is a brilliantly bizarre example of its type while, as Hunt points out, it's hard to see where else Mad Fat Diary, featuring a heroine who is exactly that, would have found a home.
“We haven’t [had success] by trying to be risk adverse," says Hunt. "Things like Mad Fat Diary I don’t think would be on any other channel. To have Made in Chelsea win a Bafta is a really proud moment and it really speaks to the level of risk that we’re taking with the channel, where you could be trying for safety but we’re continuing to push the boundaries and bring in new talent, new writers, new ways of executing things in quite familiar genres.”
One risk E4 won't be taking any time soon is following BBC3's example and going entirely online. Instead, it's harnessing the social side of the Internet to help make viewers' experiences of watching scheduled TV richer.
“Social media’s been fascinating," says Hunt. "If you look at what happens on Twitter when Mad Fat Diary comes on, it’s a sense of a sheer, live experience and being a part of a national conversation. It’s massively important. I think live television for a young audience is more important than it’s ever been before. To be tweeting about it or talking about it on Facebook, it’s a way to discuss what’s going on on telly.
"There’s still a really important role for a traditional schedule, with traditional moments, where people sit down and watch together and share their experience."