BBC Three going online 16 February is a risk that only the BBC can take. The license fee UK households pay out each year gives the Beeb the money and the means to try something like this out. A lack of a shareholders means that if it doesn’t work, then profits aren’t at stake.
Online has been the proven ground for the BBC for some time now. The iPlayer has, quite rightly, been heralded as one of the best innovations in the broadcasting world. It has played a big part in unshackling TV watching from linear programming: the viewer gets to choose when and where to watch the programmes the BBC provides.
This choice, however, is “as well as” and not “instead of” linear programming. Up until recently, with the launch of some fantastic documentaries – Fear Itself and Bitter Lake – all shows on the iPlayer would still be part of a conventional schedule.
This is not the case with BBC Three. As of 16 February, it will be completely online. It will not be tied by scheduled programming, nor will it be backed by it.
BBC3 controller Damian Cavanagh is enthused by this freedom. In a speech he gave at the launch of the online-only BBC3 this week he focused on the opportunities this can open up, not only for the viewer but the broadcaster. He also spoke on what will be staying the same.
“How we get our content to audiences is changing but some things aren’t,” said Cavanagh.
“We will continue to give new talent and new ideas opportunities. We are 100 per cent committed to finding and funding the next generation of new voices. That’s what matters. It is not the distribution platform, it is the content itself and the talent behind it.”
The platform does open up possibilities, though. Compromises normally made by the time constraints of a channel aren’t there anymore. While BBC Three is completely committed to longform, according to Cavanagh, it is also embracing a more freeform way of distributing content.
“We will package things up in whatever way tells the story best. nine 10 minute episodes, five 20-minute episodes. We could even do serialised articles or a podcast to accompany a show,” said Cavanagh.
“When you are not bound by platform, you can do whatever works for the story and that is an incredibly liberating and exciting thing that we are able to do.”
There are risks to this. The BBC’s own stats show that while on-demand viewing is now a natural thing for those who watch television, scheduled programming is still dominant. iPlayer use is heavily skewed towards the ‘under 55’ age category, which is younger than the usual linear TV range.
BBC3’s demographic is younger still. It’s a channel that currently caters for the 16-34 age range, which means that the BBC isn’t competing against everything but television.
Younger audiences are relying more on snackable on-demand content – something the BBC is not yet famed for. This means the new online-only BBC Three will be going up against some new media heavyweights – Snapchat, Facebook video and the current king YouTube.
Tony Hall, Director General at the BBC, is confident that BBC Three going online isn’t just a new era for the channel but the BBC in general.
“We are daring to do something new and very different, that is what the BBC is all about. We have always been innovators and we should continue to be innovators,” Hall explained in a speech at the BBC Three launch.
“This shows how we can change and do things new. We are the first broadcasters in the world to work out what it is going to be like in this on-demand world. No TV channel has ever done this before.
“It is new and risky but risky is the way it should be. If we don’t take risks, then who will?”