In the early hours of Tuesday morning, as the credits for Gavin and Stacey rolled for one last time, the era of BBC3 as a traditional television channel came to an end.
In a cost-saving move for the BBC, the channel, launched 13 years ago, becomes the first in the world to make the transition from TV broadcast to a solely online platform as BBC3’s budget is cut from £85m to £30m, with the savings ploughed into drama on BBC1.
The channel was launched in 2003 and set out to create programmes that brought in younger audiences between the ages of 16 and 24, broadcasting to around 11m viewers each week. It was responsible for launching the careers of James Corden and Matthew Horne on Gavin and Stacey, David Walliams and Matt Lucas on Little Britain and Julia Davis on Nighty Night.
The channel was also home to some of the BBC’s most provocative shows over the past decade, including the dark animated comedy Monkey Dust, which featured the voices of Sharon Horgan and Rebecca Front, as well as the fantastical cult comedy The Mighty Boosh, created by Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, which ran from from 2004 to 2007.
Toby Whithouse, who was the writer behind one of BBC3’s most successful original dramas Being Human, said the channel had fulfilled its brief, not in terms of drawing in young audiences necessarily, but in becoming a home for more cutting edge programmes.
“I’m not sure how much I’ve ever believed that a channel is watched by a specific demographic. The age of the audience of Being Human, for example, was much more widespread than the small target that BBC3 was going for. But I think what BBC3 did was that it gave home to the more experimental shows and that’s why it was very important for us and for the show. I don’t think Being Human would have thrived as much on BBC1 or BBC2.
“I think it took a while but, in the end, BBC3 did have a very clear idea of its own identity and, on the whole, their commissioning was very astute.”
Whithouse predicted that BBC3’s move online would soon be closely followed by other channels in 10 to 15 years and said he would have no objection to his own work debuting on an online-only platform.
He said: “Younger people do watch most TV online anyway so I don’t think it’s a colossal culture shift; the notion of watching something at an appointed time on an appointed channel is increasingly anachronistic. As long as they still have the budgets, it’s an opportunity to be more creative and more left-field.”
Damien Kavanagh, the BBC3 controller, was adamant that the channel would continue to produce the quality drama and current affairs programmes that have won it plaudits despite the shift online and cuts to budget.
Recent successes for BBC3 include a documentary on male depression and suicide by rapper Professor Green and the drama Murdered By My Boyfriend, based on a true story, which won Georgina Campbell the TV Bafta for best actress in 2015.
“The variety of forms that we can now produce content in is very interesting for our creative teams,” said Kavanagh. “I think the focus of the channel going forward – ‘make me laugh’ and ‘make me think’ – feels much sharper from an editorial point of view. We can allow people to do things that I don’t think other broadcasters can really do at the moment – in terms of giving people room to try things and also play around with form in a way we couldn’t have done if we’d stayed on television. “Of course it’s a risk. Anytime you try and do anything new and play with content, it’s a risk. The safety net in it is that we are part of the BBC; we are part of a big ecosystem.”
Kavanagh said moving the channel online fitted in with an age where 70% of UK adults (31 million) were using catch-up services such as BBC iPlayer to watch TV. It enables the channel to create much more immediately responsive content and programmes, skipping over the months and even years it can take to develop a new show for television broadcast. “We can adapt and tell stories in different ways and respond to things a lot quicker,” he said.
Kavanagh pointed out that Netflix and Amazon Prime programmes were winning awards, so there was no reason BBC3 shows would not keep taking home Baftas.
Upcoming commissions for the online BBC3 include a new series of the Greg Davies comedy Cuckoo, a follow-up to Murdered By My Boyfriend and a new series of Life and Death Row, the Bafta-winning documentary series looking at capital punishment through the eyes of young people. All new BBC3 drama commissions will also be aired on either BBC1 or BBC2.
Other innovative formats being trialled by the channel include original shortform shows, such as The Man Who Witnessed 219 executions, which will be made up of three five-minute episodes.
As part of the transition online, 20% of the overall BBC3 budget will be set aside to create new short-form and viral content, The Daily Drop, which will include parodies, videos, show spin-offs, articles and sports updates. The channel will also have outlets on YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat.
Shaun Pye, the co-writer of Monkey Dust, said he hoped the move online would revive the riskier, more provocative commissioning that he said had gone from channels such as BBC3 in the past few years.
“Back when we made Monkey Dust, BBC3 was a really good entry for new writers to get off the ground and I do think it reached out to younger audiences in a way that other channels didn’t,” said Pye. “But I don’t think Monkey Dust would ever get made by BBC3 as it is now. So the commitment to new types of shows with their move online, especially with short form stuff, will be a much needed place for young new writers to go. There aren’t a lot of other places at the moment.”
Best of BBC3
Monkey Dust (2003-2005): Animated black comedy which satirised every taboo from bestiality and murder to suicide and paedophilia
Nighty Night (2004-2005): Dark comedy written and starring Julia Davis about a sociopathic manager of a beauty parlour
The Mighty Boosh (2004-2007): Outlandish series about the adventures of Vince Noir and Howard Moon combined comedy, fantasy and musical numbers
Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010): The romantic comedy that followed the long distance relationship of a hapless couple living between Essex and Wales
Our War (2011-2012): Documentary series tracing the war in Afghanistan through the eyes of frontline soldiers
Being Human (2009-2013): Supernatural comedy about a werewolf, a vampire and ghost in a houseshare
• This article was amended on 16 February 2016. An earlier version misspelled Toby Whithouse’s name as Tony Whitehouse. This has been corrected.