How well is BBC3 doing six months after it moved online?

Ben Dowell talks to BBC3 controller Damian Kavanagh and asseses the channel's performance since its controversial move online in February

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Six months ago, on 16th February 2016, BBC3 migrated from the television schedules to become an online channel. Not long afterwards it trailed a rather unfortunate-sounding promo: “Hidden and Homeless, now on BBC3 online”.

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Hidden and homeless was exactly what BBC3 seemed to be now that it was no longer a broadcasting channel, and with its programmes tucked away in a section of iPlayer.

Its content budget had been slashed from £85m to £30m, with around £10m now spent on comedy, £10m on serious factual, £3m for drama and the rest on new types of content, such as short-form YouTube videos.

It’s true, changes to its audience’s viewing habits made the online-only proposition more favourable than it would have been in the past. Less than 50% of the video consumed by 16-24 year olds is now via ‘live’ TV (back in 2003 it was 100%), while over 90% of them now own a smartphone and have at least one social media account.

And yet the BBC was still reluctant to fully embrace the move.

The executives who proposed the closure of BBC3 as a channel accepted that it was a decision they would rather not have made for the home of shows like James Corden and Ruth Jones’s hit comedy Gavin & Stacey, supernatural drama Being Human and Bafta-winning documentary series Our War (which scored the highest rating ever on the BBC’s audience-rated Appreciation Index).

When the Corporation’s director of television Danny Cohen (also a former BBC3 controller) first mooted the plan more than a year before the move, he knew it would be unpopular with viewers and was happening sooner than he would have liked, but also that the cash-strapped BBC had no choice.

A host of top actors (including Poldark’s Aidan Turner, Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe) signed an open letter attacking the “unthinkable” decision to close a channel which had given “some of the most successful and influential names currently working in British television” their first chance.

It was a view echoed by anti-closure campaigners, many of whom were behind the 24,000 submissions to the BBC Trust which was tasked with rubber-stamping the decision. Independent production company heads Jimmy Mulville (of Hat Trick) and Jon Thoday (of Avalon) even offered to buy the channel for £100m.

But the writing was on the wall. While The Trust said that it was a difficult decision to make and was “finely balanced”, it approved the closure – yet its report still warned that 740,000 of BBC3’s young audience who didn’t watch other BBC channels could be lost to the Corporation following the closure. 

So how well has BBC3 fared since its move online?

A month after the re-launch, BBC3 unveiled its first drama series, Marnie Dickens’s five-part kidnap mystery Thirteen, starring Jodie Comer. Critical acclaim was quickly backed up by viewer interest and to date the opening episode has been requested 3 million times on iPlayer, with a large proportion of those downloads coming in the week after it was made available.

One-off honour killing drama Murdered by My Father, meanwhile, has currently racked up 1.8m requests, with the series three opener of the Greg Davies/Taylor Lautner comedy Cuckoo pulling in 1.5m and documentary Sex in Strange Places: Turkey receiving 1.3m requests.

So how does that stack up against BBC3 when it was a broadcast channel?

Direct comparisons aren’t possible but towards the end of its life on the airwaves, BBC3’s biggest successes included the season three opener of bomb disposal comedy Bluestone 42, which brought in just under 1 million viewers, with the series as a whole averaging about half that. And on a daily basis, episodes of US animated import Family Guy and repeats of EastEnders were among its most regular bankers, generally drawing around 600-800,000 viewers.

It’s true that shows like Bluestone picked up extra views on iPlayer but then that first episode of Thirteen was seen by another 1.1 million when it was shown on BBC2.

All in all, the post-move numbers compare favourably. And there’s certainly evidence that BBC3’s iPlayer numbers are improving.

Since BBC3 moved online its shows average more than 7% of iPlayer requests, up from 4.5% before the move. Nobody can say for sure that the difference is made up of BBC3’s key demographic of 16-24 year olds but it seems like a reasonable assumption.

Whatever the case, BBC3 controller Damian Kavanagh (pictured) is at pains to point out that audiences are being reached in other ways too, which the BBC hopes to include in a standardised measurement (“we have some very good minds working on this”).

These could include, for example, the live Snapchat reports by Stacey Dooley after the Cologne attacks on Germany or the 12,000+ people who have shared the Facebook post of BBC3 short filmThings Not To Ask An Autistic person.

And there is all the content viewed on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr to consider too.

“We can’t say every Facebook interaction equals an equivalent to what happens on television. We are working on that at the moment,” says Kavanagh. “The BBC Trust will review what we are doing after 18 months and we will report back as usual at the next annual report.”

And if BBC3’s youth audience has indeed followed it online, Kavanagh is convinced that the formats it is providing are more suited to them than ever.

“What I’m most excited by is the new content we’re making,” adds Kavanagh. “Freed from the constraints of a schedule we now make all kinds of content at different lengths.” He notes that Murdered By My Father ran for 73 minutes because that is the length the producers wanted – something that couldn’t have happened with a scheduled programme.

Kavanagh says that he is “really heartened” by the channel’s performance and his gut feeling from his soundings of the industry are that “BBC3 feels like a more distinctive proposition” now.

Asked whether he believes BBC3 is being consumed by more or fewer people now it is online, he is wary. “It’s too early for us to say but those eyeballs are on us in different ways,” he says.

There are also other factors to consider. “It’s about backing young UK talent now. It’s for young people,” he adds.

“Something like Things Not to Say to An Autistic Person are rather more important than people watching the fifth repeat of Family Guy. For me that is much more important, much more powerful.

“It’s taken audiences a while to get a grip of what we are doing. BBC3 has been a channel for a decade and they are getting used to the new way we are doing things. Rome wasn’t built in a day. We are doing something different and we have to take that audience with us.

“We’ve always said this is a marathon not a sprint but the early signs are very positive. We’re transforming what we are doing. We’re moving from a traditional TV channel to an online operation. We’re testing and learning, trying new things and working with new suppliers and new talent. We were the first TV channel in the world to switch online so what we’re doing is pioneering.

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“Of course there will be bumps along the way, that’s what comes with being a pioneer…”