The BBC’s plan to bring back BBC Three as a standalone television channel could be delayed, following concerns that the proposal might damage commercial rivals.
The corporation took BBC Three off broadcast television in 2016 in response to funding cuts and made it online-only, arguing the move would make it easier to attract young audiences who don’t otherwise watch BBC content.
It is now using the same argument in an attempt to return BBC Three to broadcast television in 2022. The channel has been revived creatively since going on iPlayer and has produced hits such as Fleabag and RuPauls Drag Race UK.
The BBC’s sudden about-turn has also been driven by the belated realisation that while younger audiences as a whole may be increasingly streaming video content online, a substantial number of young viewers still consume a lot of broadcast television.
By taking BBC Three off screens the broadcaster has damaged its ability to reach 16- to 34-year-olds from poorer backgrounds, as well as those who live outside London and the south-east.
Media regulator Ofcom has now decided to launch a formal investigation into the plan, which could last up to six months, because the relaunch would count as a substantial change to the BBC’s public service output. The BBC said it was still pushing ahead with its plans, in the expectation the investigation would be completed early: “This is the standard process, we do not anticipate any delays and we continue to plan for a January 2022 launch – subject to approval.”
Rivals and industry bodies have raised concerns that a revived BBC Three could take viewers away from commercial youth-focused broadcasters such as Channel 4.
Sky also said that as a new public service channel, the BBC would demand its legal right to place BBC Three in the top 24 channels on electronic programmes guides, which ensures high visibility when viewers are channel-hopping. Given there are currently no empty slots in the top part on Sky’s programme guide in some parts of the UK, this would require other channels to move slots and lose viewers in the process.
Under the proposals, BBC3 would return to broadcast television in January 2022 and be on air between 7pm and 4am, with a £72.5m annual budget and featuring a newly created news programme.