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  • Streaming British Youth Television:Online BBC Three as a Transitional Moment
  • Faye Woods (bio)

In the summer of 2016, two UK lectures by high-profile television executives highlighted television's ongoing struggle to engage with youth audiences. Shane Smith—CEO of the US-based multiplatform media company Vice Media—gave a contentious MacTaggart Lecture to the assembled British media industry at the 2016 Edinburgh International Television Festival. In it, he charged that linear television was neglecting "the interests and needs of the world's youth."1 These comments echoed those of former BBC television executive Liz Warner, who had argued that television was failing young audiences in a BAFTA lecture the previous week. Warner claimed that British television was "getting boring, old and boring" and needed to assert itself more forcefully in the digital media realm to compete, a space that Smith has long marketed himself and Vice Media as mastering. In February 2016, the BBC had taken a decisive step in this direction by closing its digital youth channel BBC Three as a linear channel, relaunching it as an online-only channel. This new BBC Three was a "platform neutral" brand hosted on the BBC's streaming video-on-demand platform iPlayer, with an increased investment in short-form content spreading its British youth television brand across YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms.2 This expansion of its short-form content meant that BBC Three was no longer only competing with established providers of British youth television on digital channels E4 and ITV2; it was also competing for attention with international media brands such as Vice, a former magazine turned US-based global media brand with twelve digital channels and more than seven million YouTube subscribers, which [End Page 140] marketed itself as a fleet-footed media disruptor able to reach an elusive youth audience.3 British youth television has always been constructed through a transatlantic dance with US youth media, a push-and-pull relationship, drawing formally on US teen TV, yet defining itself against it in its assertion of national distinction.4 BBC Three's move online indicated a new phase for British youth television: one marked by greater international competition, where a defined British voice and perspective marked its distinction within a global youth media flow. Yet without attention and investment, this distinction could potentially be swallowed up in the torrent of global media content targeting youth audiences.

Smith's charges over television's neglect of the world's youth were typically bombastic and provocative; however, his words perhaps struck a chord for a British industry playing catchup in an international digital media market dominated by US companies while also dealing with BBC Three's controversial move online and associated budget cuts. The move online was accompanied by a raid on the channel's finances to bolster a huge shortfall in the BBC's overall budget; BBC Three's programming budget was cut by £45 million to £25 million, a move that hampered its investment in original British youth programming. The move formed part of a history of the BBC cutting youth-focused provisions to shore up funding of mainstream programming, a series of decisions that have progressively damaged the corporation's reach to and relationship with youth audiences, the license-fee payers of the future.5 A continually cash-strapped BBC frames these decisions as a choice between investment in niche or mass audiences, and the corporation is quick to point out that youth audiences view BBC One programming in large numbers.6 Yet BBC Three plays an essential role in bringing the world to British youth and capturing their own experiences, struggles, and investments. This responsibility is essential for a public service broadcaster (PSB) like the BBC, as the requirement to reach youth audiences is written into the public service objectives set by the 2003 Communications Act.7

The corporation had presented the channel's move online as reaching out to this audience, a response to shifting viewing patterns and a pathfinder for how traditionally dominant broadcasters could pursue youth audiences drifting quickly away from linear [End Page 141] television.8 Research by Ofcom saw live viewing fall to one-third of total...


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