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BBC Three week: the history of BBC Three

Before looking to the future of the channel, first lets look back 22 years and see how we got here.

Sons of Morph - or Cold And Shouty?  The BBC Three launch identity.   Photograph: BBC
Sons of Morph - or Cold And Shouty? The BBC Three launch identity. Photograph: BBC
published on UK Free TV

Extending Choice

The story of BBC Three starts 22 years ago in a document called "Extending Choice".  Five years before the Freeview broadcasting standard was first published,

"the spectrum currently used to provide four existing terrestrial television services might also be able to accommodate four digital HDTV services or many more digital TV services of a quality comparable with the existing services."

It wasn't seen at this stage that digital TV would be used for anything other than high-definition widescreen versions of the existing channels.   The only extra service at this time was

"..channels which use the BBC archives. For example, the collaborative venture with Thames Television to launch UK Gold on the Astra satellite. "

And "A continuous news channel", which eventually started November 1997.

BBC Choice

BBC Choice started broadcasting before there were receivers to watch it, 23rd September 1998 being before the 1st October launch of Sky Digital and 15th November start of ONdigital.

From the start the channel was used for CBBC during the daytime.  

The evening was a third mixed-schedule channel, in the same vein as BBC One and Two.    This continued until June 1999 when BBC Knowledge started.  However both channels were run with small bugets and the only two shows of any note are were Liquid News , EastEnders Revealed.

The TV market 1998-2002

The availability of extra bandwidth without the budget for channels provided a stressful time for broadcasters.  

The ITV companies had hoped that their pay terrestrial TV platform would provide a good income, but this didn't prove to be the case: Sky Digital provided a much better choice for a lower initial cost, and only Sky had genuine premium movie and sports services and US-imports.

Without viewers, the BBC didn't furnish BBC Choice or BBC Knowledge with enough money, and they both ended up with branded-repeat schedules which were the prototype for the later UK History and the like.

Freeview reboot

With subscription evicted from digital terrestrial, the BBC under DG Dyke, broke their services into bits.   BBC News 24 continued, with Choice and Knowledge broken into CBBC, CBeebies in the day and BBC Three and Four in the evening.

The re launch of BBC choice as BBC 3 was delayed as the culture secretary wished to have her input into the new channel.

The idea for BBC Three was to create a channel focused around a demographic that tv channels have always found hard to reach: young adults.

The proposal was - indeed is - a mixed schedule of comedy and factual programming for the 18 to 30s with a splash of news and some narrative repeats (of EastEnders mainly).

But as a digital channel the service would be an add-on to other viewing.  Unlike the main channels that run a schedule that you are expected to watch from start to finished, as a dip in service - like BBC FOUR  - the same content is played many times over.

BBC Three viewing figures 2003-2015

The pink era

The channel has a makeover in 2008, with new graphics.

Critics would point to the unstable of the programmes for older viewers, but this was the whole point! Others would wilfully misunderstand the need for repeats.

Some critical points were valid: outside the one minute news updates the channel has no live content which makes it feel "dead", and am attempt at EPG headline grabbing programme names ("f**k off I'm a Hairy Woman!") could have worked better.  For many people the channel is nothing more than Family Guy and EastEnders repeats.

Then the 2010 Licence fee settlement led to Delivery Quality First and cuts: out went drama from the digital channels.    The channels break-out successes (such as Russell Howards Good News) have made it BBC Two or (Little Britain) BBC One.

We are now left with a decision to " take the channel online " .

Is this the vanguard of an on demand future... Or the axing of a mistake?


All questions
BBC Three Linear channel re-opens1
Removing all barriers to communication between diverse cultures2
How do I get a test card with Freeview3
What can I do when my Sky Digibox says 'No Signal' or 'Technical fau4
Can I receive UK TV in Ghana?5
In this section
BBC salami-slicing returns to overnight services?1
#GreatBBC campaign launched2
Goodbye BBC Red Button!3
Want to know how much the BBC spend in England, Scotland, Wales and NI per home?4
S4C and Welsh Exceptionalism?5
BBC future: make sure you make the deadline6


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