BBC Three Broadcast to be Axed

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The decision by the BBC to end BBC Three as an on air channel and shift a majority of its content exclusively to the iPlayer is an interesting and brave move, the consequences of which will make fascinating viewing for us in the VOD industry.

Axing a channel appears to be quite a bold step and has raised consternation from fans and stars of its shows. However, this kind of move appears to have been on the cards for a while. Non-broadcast content is a growing area, and the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 all have content only available online, which the statistics have shown to be successful.

Since August last year the BBC has been premiering scripted comedy on the iPlayer, and if the statistics from the BBC and BARB are to be believed, the iPlayer is actually ahead of BBC Three for some of these shows, with Bad Education a case in point.

Bad Education iPlayer vs BBC 3

The above graph compares the viewing figures on BBC 3 and iPlayer for series 2 of Bad Education. Sources: BBC iStats, 2013; BARB, 2013

The shows which are constantly top-rated on BBC Three tend to be live events or those which are currently unavailable on the iPlayer, such as Family Guy and American Dad. It would be interesting to see the effect on the viewing figures if these two programmes in particular were made available on iPlayer as well.

BBC 3 top 4 shows November 2013

Graph showing the top four most viewed shows on BBC 3 in November 2013. Source: BARB, 2013

While the statistics show a clear logic behind the BBC’s decision, it remains contentious to say that younger viewers don’t watch linear TV, and the arguments that axing the channel and cutting funding will result less exposure for new comedy aren’t without merit.

Without the exposure gained from broadcasting on a linear channel, the BBC risks losing out on the serendipitous discovery of new content, along with an audience who turn to BBC Three when there is nothing else on that they wish to watch. A petition has been started to save the channel, which has attracted over 200,000 signatures, echoing the successful campaign to save radio station 6 Music when it too faced closure.

This decision and the resulting arguments highlight the pressure on the BBC to use it’s public funding to the best effect in what is an evolving landscape of TV consumption. The BBC has to strike a fine balance between the different needs of its broad public user base.

The £60m saved from the cutbacks is to be put back into BBC dramas, as well as making room for a timeshifted BBC One +1 channel. In light of the decision to move BBC Three content available to iPlayer only, the latter does seem like a backwards step. However, BBC One aims at a much broader demographic than BBC Three, which has the remit of targeting 16-34-year-olds and trialling new content. It would be interesting to see more detailed research behind this decision, and whether the BBC are making a different decisions to reflect different demographics.

The switch to iPlayer-only format is due to be completed by Autumn 2015, allowing nearly an 18-month period in which to manage the transition. It will be fascinating for us to see how, if at all, this decision begins to push changes in viewing behaviours from linear to VOD formats in the long run, and competitors react to this.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the decision to axe BBC Three plays out. The performance of BBC Three content on the iPlayer once the channel has been closed will reveal a lot about the viewing behaviours of the BBC Three demographic, indicating the extent to which they are willing and able to use VOD services to consume content. And, on a side note, from a researcher's perspective, I am quite happy that BARB might start recording VOD & OTT viewing figures as a result.

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