When BBC Three relaunched as a live television channel earlier this year, the corporation hoped its counterintuitive punt on a youth-focused broadcast outlet would help it reach new audiences. Instead, the channel’s shows are consistently being beaten in the ratings by repeats of old history programs featuring the deceased steeplejack Fred Dibnah on BBC Four.
Most of BBC Three’s programs have so far failed to attract more than 100,000 viewers on live television, according to official viewing figures, while some shows are lucky to get a tenth of that. Even the programs that do perform relatively well – such as episodes of MasterChef Australia – are rarely the original distinctive in-house shows that the channel exists to provide.
As a result, despite years of work to return the channel to air, BBC Three is now being beaten in the ratings by the vintage film channel Talking Pictures and the rightwing current affairs station GB News.
Sophia Vahdati, of the analytics firm Digital-i, said BBC Three’s total television audience had halved in its first two months on air, despite an extensive advertising campaign to promote its return. The average daily time spent watching the channel collapsed from 57 seconds to just 17 seconds over the same period.
Vahdati said it was a tough market for all traditional broadcast channels aimed at teenagers and 20-somethings: “Young viewers were the first audiences to stop watching traditional TV and instead move to Netflix and Amazon. We expect to see that trend continue with younger generations.”
BBC Three was originally taken off air in 2016 as a cost-saving measure, with the BBC arguing that its target audience preferred to watch content on iPlayer. The online-only channel eventually found its feet as the virtual home for some of the BBC’s most acclaimed commissions such as Fleabag and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
However, BBC bosses decided that bringing back BBC Three as traditional linear television outlet could help them reach poorer and more diverse audiences – who are increasingly drifting away from the BBC altogether.
A BBC spokesperson said the viewing figures did not fully reflect the popularity of the shows, with many people still choosing to watch them on iPlayer. “Audiences value the option to choose when and where they watch and the channel provides additional visibility and another route to find BBC Three programmes,” they said.
There have been some ratings successes, with new episodes of RuPaul’s Drag Race and African Cup of Nations football matches bringing in healthy live audiences.
According to Enders Analysis, a media consultancy, the total youth audience for all British television channels has collapsed by 70% over the last decade. The average teenager’s consumption of live television has failed from almost three hours a day to just 50 minutes during this period.
The trend has severe implications for other youth-focused broadcasters, such as Channel 4. The short-lived television ratings boom caused by pandemic-related lockdowns has already gone into reverse, with channels increasingly reliant on older audiences, live sport and soap operas.
BBC Three’s relaunch – and its subsequent struggle to attract viewers – came at a tricky time for BBC management. Bosses are working out which broadcast services to close or cut in order to meet the latest government-enforced spending cuts. A key decision will be whether to ax some traditional BBC outlets that remain popular with older viewers in order to reallocate their budget in an effort to attract younger audiences.