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Straight Talk Media & Entertainment

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BBC Three goes online-only this week – ostensibly to address the reduced funding available to the UK's public service broadcaster. Although many channels offer online access to on-demand and increasingly linear streaming to complement broadcast TV, this is the first time such a prominent channel has turned its back on traditional distribution altogether.

The move is out of necessity rather than blue-sky thinking: The BBC has to save money, and one way that it can without – it and the audience hope – negatively impacting its public service remit is to move BBC Three off the airwaves.

BBC Three’s online opportunity will be challenging to realize

The online environment is very different to the controlled broadcast TV environment. Broadcasters have strong channel brands, prominence on EPGs, and sometimes even a lack of service availability off the main screen to their advantage. TV is also an excellent promotional medium, driving audiences to broadcasters’ catch-up and on-demand services. By going online-only, BBC Three relinquishes all these competitive advantages, leaving behind a heavily regulated environment to enter the wild west of online competition. It now faces challenges in the following areas:

  • Destination:The question is, where do you go to watch BBC Three? Online audiences tend to go directly to the individual piece of content they wish to watch; the aggregator or channel providing it isn’t important. BBC Three content is available on the BBC’s catch-up service, where it is subsumed into the Borg cube of iPlayer. Channel brands are diminished on iPlayer because individual shows are emphasized instead, so it isn’t the ideal home for a pioneering online channel. There is no dedicated BBC Three app. BBC Three uses YouTube for short-form video distribution; however, at the time of writing, most videos struggle to reach 10,000 views (and this is during the burst of publicity as the channel shifts to online).
  • Discovery: BBC Three must ensure the audience knows what content is available and when. There is a daily summary video highlighting content available that day, but this relies on the audience seeking it out and watching it. BBC Three videos are embeddable so third-party sites can drive distribution, but only if they think the video will work with their audience.
  • Competition: YouTube, Netflix, Twitch, Vice, and any number of broadcaster catch-up services all want a similar audience to BBC Three: online, young, and British. Online video specialists are experts in audience aggregation and driving distribution through social media. BBC Three will have to learn how to compete on their terms.
  • Long form vs. short form:According to BARB,UK TV audiences watch twenty times more TV than online audiences watch long-form content on a daily basis. Perhaps BBC Three will change this. Either way, this explains BBC Three’s shift in focus towards short-form video. But does the world need another short-form video repository?

Key to building BBC Three as a distinctive online TV proposition will be original content production. BBC Three will make available around four hours of new content per week, and its public service remit dictates that its programming should be risky, youth-oriented, and informative (“original British comedy, drama, documentaries, and current affairs, and new British talent,” as controller Damian Kavanagh put it). Whatever the content, it has to be distinctively “BBC Three.” Not generic BBC, not iPlayer, not anonymous short form, but the kind of content that makes the audience wonder “Who made this?” and repeatedly come back for more. This is of course much easier said than done.

Another vital quality for success will be for BBC Three to be responsive and adaptable to the online environment. This means ongoing adaptation and iteration of strategy, distribution, commissioning, and marketing. The BBC brand opens many doors in TV; online it’s just a huge target for the next 10 million streamers looking to make a name for themselves.

There is a risk that BBC Three becomes the BBC’s dumping ground for all the slightly bothersome online business, leading to an unfocused and loosely defined proposition. Discussion of e-sports coverage is unsettling: What would BBC Three bring to e-sports coverage that isn’t being served magnificently elsewhere on the Internet?

There is an opportunity for BBC Three online; however, it will be difficult to realize and will take time. It could become a breeding ground for online TV innovation and leadership, showing the rest of the BBC – the rest of the UK TV industry even – how to thrive online.



Ed Barton, Practice Leader, TV

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