BBC Three returns to TV: What does U-turn mean for battle between linear and streaming TV?

Ross McGuinness
·4 min read
Andrew Scott and Phoebe Waller-Bridge in 'Fleabag'. (Credit: BBC)
Fleabag is one of BBC Three's biggest hits. ( BBC)

Video killed the radio star, and streaming has been convicted of murdering linear television.

But wait! In the long tradition of any TV courtroom drama worth its salt, could we have a mistrial on our hands?

Because there is new evidence that appointment TV is alive and kicking, perhaps not quite as full of beans as in its glory days, but still showing definite signs of life.

The announcement this week that BBC Three is to return as a broadcast channel has been met with a range of reactions depending on your age or viewing habits.

There have been loud “we told you so” cheers from those who condemned the decision to take it off mainstream television in the first place back in 2016 - some 300,000 people signed a petition against the move.

Read more: Figures reveal BBC Three audience 'collapsed' as digital-only channel

There has been a collective shrug from those of a certain demographic who get their TV kicks online, and who managed to find their favourite BBC Three output just fine thank you very much when it moved exclusively to the iPlayer five years ago.

And then there is the group asking: “What’s BBC Three?”, who caught its biggest homegrown hits such as Fleabag and Normal People when they aired on BBC One.

When it comes to how we watch TV, there are no normal people.

“Whilst trends suggest many of us are watching streaming services and watching on demand, a real surprise has been the lasting appeal of linear television,” TV critic and broadcaster Scott Bryan, from BBC 5 Live’s Must Watch podcast, told Yahoo Entertainment UK.

'Normal People' has been a hit for BBC Three. (Credit: BBC)
Normal People was a lockdown smash for BBC Three. (BBC)

“When there is so much television to watch, tens of thousands of shows, we all still want a bit of curation.”

This is what the BBC is banking on with its Three U-turn, that there are enough younger viewers who will still sit down in front of the TV for an allotted time slot.

The corporation said its own research had identified a “significant group” in the younger demographic who “maintain a strong linear TV habit but are currently light users of the BBC”.

Read more: 2021 is a crucial battleground in the streaming wars

If approved by Ofcom, BBC Three could return as a mainstream broadcast channel in January 2022, when the viewing landscape may have altered even further.

When it does come back, the aim is attract an audience in the 16 to 34 bracket, with broadcasting beginning pre-watershed at 7pm and closing at 4am.

Keep BBC3 on TV campaign t-shirt. Worn by a campaigner to save BBC Three outside BBC broadcasting house. Central London. 17th February 2015. (Photo by In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)
Hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition to keep BBC Three on air in 2015. (Getty Images)

"The BBC needs to back success and make sure its programmes reach as many young people as possible,” said Charlotte Moore, BBC’s chief content officer.

"So regardless of the debates about the past, we want to give BBC Three its own broadcast channel again. It has exciting, groundbreaking content that deserves the widest possible audience.”

Read more: Disney+ steps up its fight in the streaming wars

Its BBC One broadcast notwithstanding, Normal People was requested on the iPlayer a remarkable 62 million times last year. If a show is good enough, viewers will find it.

But Bryan doesn’t think that spells the end for linear television.

Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon as Nessa and Bryn in 'Gavin and Stacey'. (Credit: BBC)
Ruth Jones and Rob Brydon as Nessa and Bryn in 'Gavin and Stacey'. (Credit: BBC)

“Many people still want that decision-making process done for them, instead of us having to scroll through an endless array of menus to find something to watch,” he said.

“A TV slot also helps well for publicity, as the schedule gets featured in magazine and newspaper listings.”

The battle within a battle of streaming against linear is the quick binge versus the slow burn. And both have their place, each one helped - not hindered - by the fact a pandemic has kept us all indoors.

Read more: BBC reveals Line Of Duty season 6 will have extra episode

“Drama such as Line Of Duty and reality shows such as Married At First Sight Australia and Bake Off continue to perform well on television, simply because viewers love the fact that they are watching a show at the same time as everyone else,” said Bryan.

“This companionship is especially true at a time when we are all apart.

“It certainly helps with not finding out spoilers too. How many times have we watched a show immediately when it is on because we don't want to find out on Twitter afterwards?”

Watch: Here's your Great British Bake Off 2020 champion