BBC Three is to return as a television channel, having ceased broadcasting in 2016, becoming the first broadcast channel in the world to go online only. The move online, partly driven by budget cuts, was widely criticised and opposed at the time. BBC Three returned to television in 2019 as a branded block three nights a week on BBC One. The full return to television, expected in January 2022, suggests there is still room for television to reach younger audiences that have drifted away from the BBC.

“The BBC needs to back success and make sure its programmes reach as many young people as possible, wherever they live in the UK,” said Charlotte Moore, the chief content officer of the BBC. “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, and using BBC iPlayer alongside a broadcast channel will deliver the most value.”

BBC Three was launched in February 2003, with a remit to serve viewers aged 16-34. It developed a number of shows that successfully transferred to BBC One and Two.

The plan to cease broadcasting the channel was described by Tony Hall, then director general of the BBC, 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 in December 2014.

The move was partly to save money, and the budget for BBC Three was cut from a modest £81 million in 2013/14 to a meagre £30 million in 2017/18.

The channel was taken off air in 2016 on the assumption that it would work better online, with programmes delivered primarily through the BBC iPlayer. It did not. The audience failed to follow, and the BBC saw a rapid reduction in viewing among younger adults.

One study suggested that viewing of BBC Three programmes, including those shown on other BBC channels, was down by 72% in 2019 compared to the year before it ended broadcast transmission.

The communications regulator, Ofcom, warned in 2019 that “The BBC may not be sustainable in its current form, if it fails to regain younger audiences who are increasingly tuning out of its services.”

Ofcom noted that less than half of those aged 16-24 tuned into BBC television channels in an average week and the use of the BBC iPlayer by this age group also fell. The regulator said: “the BBC must find ways to be more distinctive online, where our research shows younger people are passing it by.”

The BBC Three brand had some notable successes, when programmes were also shown on the main BBC One channel. The drama series Normal People, a co-production with Hulu, was released on the BBC iPlayer under the BBC Three brand in April 2020 and was shown weekly on BBC One. The first episode received a total of 6.4 million requests on the BBC iPlayer and the series went on to generate 62 million requests over the year.

The BBC Annual Plan, presented by Tony Hall in May 2020, recognised that “there is potentially a strong case for restoring BBC Three as a linear channel as well as an online destination”.

In its Annual Report on the BBC published in November 2020, Ofcom noted: “the BBC is still struggling to reach and retain young audiences”. It challenged the BBC for not providing a weekly reach figure for BBC Three. It wrote: “We encourage the BBC to publish additional information on how well BBC Three content is performing, including on BBC iPlayer.”

The BBC has responded with plans to bring BBC Three back to television from January 2022, subject to regulatory approval. The broadcast channel will be used to showcase programming to a wider audience. The channel budget will be increased to £72.5 million, funded through cost savings elsewhere. Interestingly, while the marketing budget will be £5.7 million, the annual cost of distribution, technology and operations is put at only £0.8 million.

The plan is to use existing transmission capacity, shared as before with the CBBC channel for children. It will be broadcast from 7pm to 4am each day, with plans to offer programming suitable for audiences of 13 and above until 9pm.

The BBC says the channel offering will not be a classic linear daily schedule but will be a collection of the most relevant shows that month.

As the proposal amounts to a new service, the BBC has published a public interest test consultation and is inviting comments from the public and industry stakeholders.