BBC Three is set for a triumphant return as a TV channel after media regulator Ofcom gave it the provisional greenlight to return to broadcast television, six years after the corporation took it off air because its young viewers had abandoned traditional viewing.
The corporation took BBC Three off air in 2016, despite it being the home of hits from Fleabag to Killing Eve, deciding that an online-only version would make it easier to attract young audiences.
However, as the pandemic hit last year, and BBC Three spawned yet another hit with lockdown obsession Normal People, the corporation made a U-turn after arguing that there is still a “significant group of younger viewers who maintain a strong linear TV habit”.
The BBC moved to more than double BBC Three’s annual budget to more than £70m, to give it enough commissioning firepower to maintain a linear TV schedule, as success stories such as ITV2’s Love Island proved there is a market of millions of younger viewers for traditional TV if the programming appeals.
The broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, has been investigating the impact on commercial rivals of a return of the TV channel, as rivals and industry bodies raised concerns that it will take viewers away from commercial youth-focused broadcasters such as Channel 4.
“Our job is to ensure that any change the BBC wishes to make to its publicly funded TV, radio and online services does not give it an unfair advantage over rival broadcasters,” said Ofcom. “Having conducted a detailed analysis of the BBC’s proposal, we have provisionally concluded that the public value of BBC Three returning as a broadcast channel justifies the limited adverse market impact.”
Ofcom also said that the return of BBC Three as a TV channel would benefit certain demographics and regions that are less likely to view using streaming services such as the BBC iPlayer to watch programming.
“We have provisionally found that the channel would increase the availability and reach of BBC Three to people who currently don’t access it,” said Ofcom. “Particularly viewers from lower income households and those living outside London and the south-east.”
Sky had complained that as a public service channel BBC Three would have a legal right to appear in the top 24 channels on electronic programme guides, which would bump another channel further down, ensuring high visibility among viewers scanning for shows and channels to watch on TV. Ofcom confirmed that, subject to consultation, BBC Three will get a prime slot.
“It is a fantastic vote of confidence in our drive to deliver more value and grow our offer for younger audiences across the UK,” said a spokesperson for the BBC. “We’ve committed to increase our investment in the channel’s programmes, which will allow us to deliver even more of our award winning content and expand our creative partnerships across the UK nations and regions.”
Ofcom has opened a public consultation on its provisional decision to allow BBC Three to return to TV next year, as well its proposed change to the electronic programme guide, and will publish its final decision by the end of the year.