BBC to Move Youth Network Online, Boost Drama Budget

Luke Macgregor/Reuters
BBC director general Tony Hall

UPDATED: The U.K. public broadcaster's first-ever closure of a TV channel will see shows move online and to other networks as the BBC will save $84 million per year, with $50 million of that going to its drama budget.

LONDON – The BBC on Thursday confirmed and detailed plans to shutter youth-skewing TV network BBC Three in the fall of 2015 and move it online to further cut costs.

BBC director general Tony Hall said Thursday that the network would be moved to the U.K. public broadcaster's digital player, BBC iPlayer, with some of its shows likely to end up on other BBC networks. 

He also said that half of BBC Three's program commissioning budget, or $50 million (£30 million) would be used to boost flagship network BBC One's drama budget. 

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The BBC said that the overall cost savings will amount to more than $84 million (£50 million) per year, but $50 million of that will be shifted to the BBC One drama budget.

Hall had last week told a TV industry conference in Oxford that the U.K. public broadcaster faces "tough choices" amid the need for an additional $165 million in annual savings to ensure it has the financial resources needed for a continued digital push and core activities, such as its drama output.

"This is the first time in the BBC's history that we are proposing to close a television channel," Hall said. "I can’t rule out it being the last change to our programs or services." But he added that as part of the change, "we will extend children's programs by an hour a night and provide a BBC One +1 channel," which would repeat shows an hour after their first broadcast.

"This is the biggest strategic decision the BBC has made in over a decade," said Danny Cohen, director of BBC Television. "While it has been an extremely difficult decision borne out of financial necessity, I believe it is also a creatively energizing and innovative move. In autumn 2015, we plan to close BBC Three as a linear TV channel and in its place we will develop a bold, ambitious, future-facing new version of BBC Three online."

He added: "I think this can be transformational for both the BBC’s relationship with young audiences and the BBC’s approach to the digital age overall. When we take BBC Three online we need to see it as a brand-new service launch. It is an opportunity for both radical thinking and unprecedented collaboration both inside the BBC and with our audiences and creative partners outside the corporation."

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On Wednesday, it had first emerged that the BBC was considering turning BBC Three into an online-only offering. Official confirmation of that came early Thursday, but the decision still requires approval from the BBC Trust governing body.

Hall called the decision a "difficult conclusion." He said, "I believe it’s the right thing to do: Young audiences – the BBC Three audience – are the most mobile and ready to move to an online world. 25 percent of viewing by 16- to 24-year-olds is to catch-up or other screens and over the next few years we expect that to reach 40 percent. We recognize that, for now, most of this audience still do their viewing on television, and that is why we plan to show BBC Three’s long-form content on either BBC One or BBC Two."

BBC Three, 11 years old, has been led by controller Zai Bennett and has developed a younger following, with a focus on people ages 16-34, with comedies including Little Britain and Gavin & Stacey. The move of its current shows online is expected to reduce programming and other budgets, but the BBC on Thursday didn't immediately detail by how much.

In recent months, some industry observers have suggested that BBC Two and BBC Four could be combined, but the latter's focus on arts and culture programming is seen as an important focus under Hall, who previously was CEO of the Royal Opera House in London.

Hall, who took over the U.K. public broadcaster last April, late in 2013 had said he didn't plan to close down any networks. 

BBC Three has already debuted some shows, such as sitcoms Bad Education and Some Girls, on digital platforms before their on-air runs. The move to an online-only presence for BBC Three content also seems to fit into Hall's vision of making the iPlayer the "front door" to the BBC’s TV and radio services. A revamp of the iPlayer, including possible original programming for it, is scheduled to be announced next week.

Little Britain star Matt Lucas has been among the creatives who have expressed concern about the end of BBC Three as a linear channel, saying it could hurt British comedy. "This would be really bad for new comedy," he tweeted. "Like, REALLY bad."

Hall on Thursday addressed possible further criticism of the decision to shutter a whole network. "My concern – along with that of everybody I meet inside and outside the BBC – is to ensure that the quality of what we do is not compromised along the way," he said in an internal email. "We are here to produce exceptional and distinctive programs and services for Britain and the world. But I do believe, as I said only last week, that the BBC has taken incremental change as far as it can. Something has to give. And that means hard choices. But there is one choice I will never make – and that's to sacrifice quality. And I believe that's what the British public thinks, too."

Twitter: @georgszalai