BBC Three could make a triumphant return as a broadcast TV channel after enjoying a run of hits – from Fleabag to lockdown obsession Normal People – that have rated with the youth audience the corporation is desperate to win over.
The corporation is actively exploring reviving the broadcast channel, four years after it was taken online-only, according to the BBC’s annual plan due to be published on Wednesday.
Regardless of what is decided, the channel will have its programme budget more than double to £80m over the next two years. This bulking up will mean it is able to commission enough programming for a linear TV schedule, but will entail cuts elsewhere in the corporation.
The annual plan, which sets out the BBC’s intentions for the next financial year, says the corporation has turned around the slide of youth audiences trickling away to other services such as Netflix.
Two years ago the corporation said it faced a crisis over reaching younger audiences, revealing that 16- to 24-year-olds spent more time with Netflix in a week than with all of BBC TV including the BBC iPlayer.
“BBC Three has become home to some of our biggest shows,” said a BBC source. “We need to back that success, so within an environment where we are making difficult cuts, this is one of a limited number of areas where we will seek to invest. Who wouldn’t want more Fleabags, Killing Eves, This Country or Normal People?”
Earlier this month, Normal People, which the corporation says has now had more than 38m requests to view it on the iPlayer, helped deliver the best week ever for BBC Three as TV viewing soared under lockdown conditions.
The annual plan will point to BBC research that shows there is still a big available audience on broadcast television. The huge success of digital channel ITV2’s in attracting millions of younger viewers to Love Island is a case in point that has not gone unnoticed at the BBC.
One executive at the corporation said BBC Three “has been a real hit machine … but it’s also reaching the wider population as well.”
The channel’s new budget will be almost twice that of BBC Four’s £44m, as rumours circulate that the arts and culture channel could face the threat of closure.
BBC Four attracts a small, niche audience of mostly older viewers to its schedule of shows, although it was responsible for creating the hit comedy The Thick of It. The corporation has made it clear that its goal is to pursue younger audiences.
Speculation intensified earlier this month when it was announced that Cassian Harrison, BBC Four’s long-serving controller, is to move to BBC Studios, the corporation’s commercial arm, on a nine-month attachment.
While the annual plan does not explicitly protect the future of BBC Four, sources say a closure is not on the cards.
“This is not about playing off BBC Four against BBC Three,” said a BBC source. “Contrary to reports, the BBC has no plans to close it or diminish our arts portfolio.”
The annual plan will also address the negative impact the pandemic is having on the corporation’s finances. The BBC has predicted its income will fall by £125m this year as people stop paying the licence fee during the coronavirus pandemic and as revenue from its commercial arm drops substantially.
A source says the corporation will set out plans on how to “balance its books” in the autumn as a result, once the full financial impact of the coronavirus is clear.