LONDON — When the BBC took its youth-focused TV channel off the air and moved it online in 2016, the broadcaster was going where its viewers seemed to be.
Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon had transformed how people — both in Britain and the U.S. — watched TV, and BBC Three’s target audience of 16- to 34-year-olds were apparently turning their backs on traditional television channels.
Now, Britain’s public service broadcaster has done a U-turn: BBC Three — home to shows like “Fleabag” and “Normal People” — is back on terrestrial TV.
The move reflects the continued challenges of understanding how the internet is changing TV habits. And it shows how the BBC is doubling down on youth programming as it deals with competition and potential budget cuts.
BBC Three was launched in 2003 as a younger sibling to the BBC’s two long-running TV channels. It produced provocative comedies like “The Mighty Boosh” and “Little Britain” that appealed to a younger audience than the more conventional programming on BBC One and Two. The decision to turn BBC Three into a streaming channel also came with a massive cut to its budget, from 85 to 30 million pounds (about $114 million to $40 million).
“It was a disaster. And it was an immediate disaster,” Patrick Barwise, co-author of the book “The War Against the BBC,” said of the move.
Time spent watching the channel soon fell by more than 70 percent, and it also lost the same proportion of reach among its target viewership, according to data from Enders, a research company.
There is wider evidence that millions of households haven’t, in fact, moved to streaming. In an interview, Fiona Campbell, the head of BBC Three, pointed to a recent report on American TV habits from Nielsen that showed 64 percent of viewers still regularly watch cable television, compared to 26 percent who watch streaming.
The idea that young people are turning their backs on traditional TV also seems more complicated than it did six years ago. BBC Three’s relaunch is also intended to make its programming more accessible, Campbell said, especially to less affluent and more rural viewers who may not have high-speed internet and are less likely to be streaming.
According to Barwise, many young viewers are also taking a hybrid approach. “People are watching Netflix or other video some of the time, and then they’re watching broadcast” television, he said. Despite a decline, younger viewers still watch more than one hour of live television a day, according to Ofcom, the British media regulator.
During its online-only years, BBC Three still produced some of the broadcaster’s most popular shows, and the renewed investment in the channel — its programming budget will return to 80 million pounds — comes at a time when the BBC is facing pressure from several sides.
The British government recently announced that the country’s license fee, which is charged each year to all households with a TV and is the main source of funding for the BBC, will be frozen for the next two years. With inflation rising fast in Britain, this is likely to mean another round of cuts, and the BBC chief Tim Davie has said that “everything is on the agenda.”
“To have a freeze in the BBC license fee at precisely the time when genuine inflation is really high, and inflation in the broadcasting industry is really high, can’t be a good moment,” said Roger Mosey, a former head of BBC Television News. “Not only have you got competition from the streamers for audiences, you’ve also got competition for talent.”
In this context, the public broadcaster is betting on BBC Three’s track record for producing buzzy shows in combination with the allure of traditional “linear” television. In Britain, despite the availability of seemingly infinite streaming content, viewers have been gravitating toward weekly appointment viewing.
The BBC releases many of its popular programs as complete seasons on iPlayer, its streaming service, at the same time as the first episode airs on broadcast television. Charlotte Moore, the BBC’s head of content, said in a phone interview that with “The Tourist,” a drama starring Jamie Dornan, “we were still getting two million people choosing to watch it on a Sunday night even though it’s all available on iPlayer.”
When the BBC Three show “Normal People” aired on the broadcaster’s traditional TV channels, it was regularly a trending topic on British social media. “When we do shows that really drive conversation,” Campbell said, “people want to be in for the live moment. And that’s why channels still have a role.”
Campbell also believes there are drawbacks to only distributing shows via streaming, since viewers may be more hesitant to engage with documentaries on challenging public-service topics. Citing a recent series on revenge porn, she said, “They’re very challenging subjects, and people would be going, ‘Do I really want to go there?’ Whereas if they encounter it on linear, it can be less intimidating.”
While Moore wouldn’t say whether BBC Three would be immune from the next round of budget cuts, she indicated that youth programming would remain a core focus. “Obviously we’ll look at our whole funding envelope to work out how we are going to meet all audience needs, with the money that we have,” she said. “But of course, young audiences are going to continue to be a critical part of that.”
With its return to broadcast, Campbell also hopes to make BBC Three stand out from its commercial streaming rivals by telling stories from across Britain. Upcoming programs include “Brickies,” which follows young bricklayers in the north of England, and a tractor racing competition called “The Fast and the Farmer(ish)”, filmed in Northern Ireland and created to appeal to the 11 million young people who live in the British countryside.
“You want to reflect the current challenges and pressures and difficulties people are having now, all the more so after the pandemic,” Campbell said. “If we don’t reflect that, then why do they need us in their lives?”