BBC Three viewing minutes fell by 89% since the broadcast channel ceased broadcasting and went online only in early 2016. A study shows that the channel, with a target audience of those aged 16-34 years, appears to have failed to attract anything like equivalent viewing online. Compared to the year before it ended broadcast transmission, viewing of BBC Three programmes, including those shown on other BBC channels, was down 72% in 2019.

Professor Neil Thurman, a former researcher at City, University of London, now at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich, studied the first television channel in the world to close its linear broadcasting operation and instead prioritise offering its programming online.

His report is unequivocal. “The results show that BBC Three’s audience shrank by 60–70% after it closed its linear TV channel. The intensity with which the channel was viewed was even more sharply reduced: annual viewing minutes after the switch were 89% less than the channel achieved on linear television before (and around 72% less if viewing of BBC Three-commissioned/acquired content on other BBC TV channels is included).”

The research used a combination of the IPA Touchpoints Hub Survey of a representative sample of over 5,000 adults and viewing panel data from BARB.

There were an estimated 53.59 billion annual minutes of viewing of BBC Three in the year before it ceased transmission. In the 12-month period to October 2018 the figure was 5.8 billion, a reduction of 89%. Even factoring in the 9.14 billion minutes spent watching programmes commissioned or acquired for BBC Three shown on other channels, the decline in viewing was at least 72%.

Part of the reason may be that the programming budget for BBC Three was reduced by around 69%, reducing the number of minutes of programming available by around 80%.

Back in December 2014, Tony Hall, then director general of the BBC, described the decision to cease broadcasting the channel as one of the most exciting and ambitious proposals he had seen. “The new BBC Three will be a great example of how we can reinvent the public service for the digital world,” he said.

Danny Cohen, a former controller of BBC Three and then director of television, who had described it as “the biggest strategic decision the BBC has made in over a decade” said at the time: “I don’t want us to sit back as a legacy company and watch as generational change bites away at our impact — I want us to be at the forefront of that change.”

The decision then underwent a market impact assessment, public value test and a consultation that demonstrated considerable public opposition to the plan.

BBC Three went off air on 16 February 2016, with programmes continuing to be available online through the BBC iPlayer, although some were also shown on other BBC channels.

Did the plan fail, Tony? Well, it does not seem to have succeeded. In May 2020, the BBC reported in its Annual Plan that “there is potentially a strong case for restoring BBC Three as a linear channel as well as an online destination”. That will now be high on the agenda of the new director general, Tim Davie.

“BBC Three is not a traditional TV channel so it should be no surprise it’s not consumed like one,” a representative of the BBC responded. “When we moved online, we wanted to grow younger audiences coming to iPlayer and it’s working, with 412 million total requests for BBC Three programmes in the past 12 months, a 57 per cent increase year on year.”

“Time spent with BBC Three content is also growing, up by 37% this year as more young viewers discover shows like Normal People, RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, This Country, Young Offenders and Glow Up. As set out in the annual plan, we are committed to better serve young audiences and will double the amount we spend on BBC Three commissions over the next two years.”

The study by Neil Thurman will appear in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.