Last year there was one TV show that captured the world’s attention. It swept the board during awards season; it broke our hearts and put them back together again; and it inspired a rise in M&S canned gin and tonics sales.
That show was, of course, Fleabag series two, written by and starring the inimitable Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who’s since become a household name across the pond while setting the standard for zeitgeist comedy.
This year, there’s another low-budget, high-brow series that’s become an unexpected global hit. It broke viewing records, became the go-to lockdown binge watch, and inspired a surge of interest in men’s chain necklaces.
On the surface, Normal People (which takes itself very seriously) couldn’t be more different from Fleabag (which doesn’t). While the drama, about two Irish teenagers falling in and out of love, also broke our hearts, its format and dreamy style is very different from Waller-Bridge’s biting, Emmy-winning comedy featuring a ‘Hot Priest‘.
No, the only thing the two shows really have in common is BBC Three, the channel that commissioned them both. The channel that, since 2016, hasn’t even been on-air, after the decision was made by higher-ups that today’s “youth” only watch TV online, their laptops balanced on their duvets alongside their plates of avocado toast.
Now, however, that could be changing, after the BBC announced today in a new report that there’s “potentially a strong case for restoring BBC Three as a linear channel” – but that “viewing habits” would need to be closely monitored before any final decision was made.
The move would essentially be a sop to those who have – rightly – claimed that it’s thanks to BBC Three, and shows like Normal People, that the BBC is able to compete against transatlantic heavy-hitters like Netflix and Amazon, especially during lockdown. In April it was announced that Netflix had benefited from 16 million new subscribers, while Disney Plus’ UK launch was unwittingly timed to perfection, coinciding with school closures and families desperate to entertain their kids during work hours – as of May, the streaming platform boasts around 55 million worldwide subscribers.
It’s a tough marketplace by any stretch, but earlier this month BBC iPlayer reported its biggest day ever, crediting both Normal People and Killing Eve series three (a show first created by Waller-Bridge, I might add).
Moving BBC Three back on-air would be a public acknowledgement of everything the channel has managed to achieve for the broadcaster, both at home and abroad.
While many international viewers may have previously associated the BBC with stuffy Jane Austen adaptations or achingly predictable dramas starring Keeley Hawes (sorry, Bodyguard), shows like Fleabag and Normal People have positioned the broadcaster as a leading innovator in television. As a BBC spokesman said today, “We’d be wrong not to back a service that is doing better than anyone could have ever conceived.”
My only fear is that, as moving the channel on-air will be costly (moving it online saved the BBC a cool £30 million), that money will have to come from somewhere – and potentially result in taking BBC Four off-air instead, a rumour that’s been circulating for weeks. As I’ve previously written, taking the arts channel off-air or even just reducing its funding would be a true blow, a damning indictment for arts programming at a time when the arts themselves have never been more needed – or more at risk.
And like BBC Three, BBC Four has also commissioned some globally acclaimed successes, like The Thick of It – innovative, daring stuff that, like Fleabag, would be a tough initial sell to older channels like BBC One.
The BBC faces some tough decisions, as do many companies during these “strange and difficult times”. I only hope the broadcaster will opt to reward and encourage innovation, and that it won’t penalise the most vulnerable.
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