The BBC is a rare beast in the media world – a publically funded broadcaster with a world-straddling reputation for excellence. Its audience is enormous – it has a target of reaching half a billion people worldwide by 2022 – and as a result almost any change it makes to its structure or programming is newsworthy.

That’s certainly the case with the end of BBC3 as a broadcast channel. But while the move is driven primarily by cost-cutting, it also offers the corporation a chance see what a digital-only future for its channels looks like.

The fact the BBC thinks BBC3 even has a future as a purely digital channel is an acknowledgement of the changing way in which audiences are consuming video content. Its director general Tony Hall explains:

“By searching out new ways to engage and entertain young audiences on their terms, the new BBC Three will be a great example of how we can reinvent the public service for the digital world – using their talent, appearing on the platforms and devices that they use and talking to them as equals and partners.”

Despite the BBC director of television Danny Cohen saying he expects overall viewer numbers to decrease following the move, of all the BBC’s channels BBC3 makes the most sense to migrate online. Its primary audience of 16 – 34 year olds is the same demographic who are consuming most digital video content, and its stock in trade of irreverent, sometimes try-hard comedy is the type of content that you might expect to find on more professional YouTube channels or the start-up digital comedy sites such as Funny Or Die.

That content will exist on the new BBC3 under the banner of ‘Make Me Laugh’, although the second stream set to be included is more “cerebral” content under the banner ‘Make Me Think’. 

So the migration of BBC3, although necessitated by the BBC’s desire to save money rather than as an experiment in its own right, is an excellent first test for Beeb to see whether its existing television audience will follow that content. 

Digital boom

From Ofcom’s Infrastructure report for 2014 we’re aware that the overall number of televisions in the UK is falling for the first time, and similar research from ad tech company Marchex in the US shows that people are increasingly requesting internet-only packages from cable providers, without the attendant television channels.

Business Insider claims digital viewing is to overtake television in both audience share and ad revenue, and Pricewaterhouse Cooper research similarly shows an increase in the number of people who subscribe to over-the-top services such as Netflix in addition to or instead of cable services.

We’re moving towards a world where the majority of video consumption is being done on digital platforms, and it’s a trend the BBC and other UK broacasters are very aware of.

Further evidence that the BBC knows what content works online can be found in how it plans to spend the (reduced) budget for the new BBC3 – 20 percent is to go on creating shortform video content with the explicit purpose of luring in younger viewers to the service. That’s in line with the patterns of consumption we’re seeing among digital audiences. This excellent round-up by Digiday makes it absolutely plain that shortform video is the most consumed format among the more mobile-focused audiences that make up BBC3’s existing audience.

So even though Cohen expects BBC3 to lose viewers in the initial move, all the pieces are in place for the BBC to capitalise on the emerging trends for digital video consumption. And if the channel proves to be successful in its new home, it might just help the BBC work out how to use digital channels to hit that half a billion people target by 2022.