BBC Three Is Back: Channel Boss Fiona Campbell Says Return To Linear Will “Add Another Layer Of Audience”; Talks ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Vs The World’ & ‘Conversations With Friends’

·9 min read

EXCLUSIVE: “Bringing BBC Three back to linear TV” would have been far down former BBC Director General Tony Hall’s list of predictions for his successor’s first major piece of business.

In 2014, having only just become DG, Hall took the first forward-thinking decision of his own rein by making BBC Three a solely online channel, knocking a hefty £50M ($67.4M) from its budget (the money was diverted to drama) and acting ahead of the curve of the viewing habits of BBC Three’s younger target market, who were showing a greater propensity to watch programing on streaming platforms at a time of their choosing.

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Fast-forward six years and Hall’s successor, Tim Davie, dramatically U-turned, giving the greenlight to a plan that had been in the works for several months and announcing that BBC Three was to return to traditional TV sets. Just as crucially, the channel would be given its £50M back.

The woman tasked with leading the charge was Channel Controller Fiona Campbell, an optimistic, Northern Irish-based former BBC News exec who brims with confidence and vision when Deadline sits down with her over Zoom earlier this month, just weeks before February 1 launch day.

Campbell has questions to answer and is prepared.

First and foremost, in a world in which streaming habits have rendered appointment-to-view TV virtually null and void for anyone under the age of 35 (BBC Three’s target market), why is it being reinstated?

“My feeling is that channels are still incredibly powerful,” she tells Deadline, citing BBC One’s The Green Planet, the latest David Attenborough doc that had aired the night before to 5M viewers.

“I’m not denying that the competition is tough but when you look overnight at BBC One and BBC Two, there are a lot of people still coming to watch these shows. It’s harder to ‘create moments’ than it used to be but it does happen.”

Although Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings has previously predicted the death of broadcast TV, Campbell used last year’s Edinburgh TV Festival appearance to insist that streamers would die for a powerful presence on linear.

She stresses that the majority of viewing to BBC Three content will still be on BBC VoD service iPlayer but points to research from U.S. ratings body Nielsen, which found 64% of Americans’ time using their TV sets in May 2021 was spent watching cable or network TV, far higher than SVoD or gaming.

She also points to the “digital divide,” with a decent-sized minority of the UK still lacking good broadband and therefore unable to stream.

“You can’t assume everyone lives in a house with a connected TV or iPad,” she adds. “We’re adding another layer of audience here, viewers who don’t have a strong relationship with iPlayer. People still use the TV set as an accompaniment to life.”

Making it happen

Campbell makes a strong case, so what has she been up to this past year?

Other than “regrouping endlessly on Zoom,” often with Davie and Chief Content Officer Charlotte Moore, Campbell’s team has been “thinking a lot about what has been working well, which shows have been skewing young and what’s been landing in different parts of the country.”

When we talk, there is lots to prep for the February 1 channel launch and Omicron has slowed things down.

“People think the BBC plans things out super far in advance but this has been lightning speed development,” Campbell says candidly. “With three weeks to go, we’re still trying to make things work.”

The channel will “feel very different to what it was like back in the day,” she adds. The style has changed and themed nights of programming hosted in between shows by presenters from the likes of channel favorite Angels of the North will set it apart.

The first night kicks off with a Launch Party followed by two episodes of dating format Eating With My Ex, but it is one show above all else that really sticks out: RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs The World.

The World Cup-style spin-off of RuPaul’s U.S. mega-hit is the ultimate coup for night one and will feature UK favorites Blu Hydrangea, Baga Chipz and Cheryl Hole alongside U.S. contestants Jujubee and Mo Heart, with queens from Thailand, Canada and The Netherlands also on board.

Campbell reveals the spin-off has been in the works for almost two years, emerging at the very start of the first lockdown way back in March 2020.

“We were about to meet with Tim [Davie] to discuss the new channel’s concept and were thinking how we could do something big and fun when we eventually came out of lockdown,” she takes up the story. “That’s when Fenton [Bailey] from [Drag Race producer] World Of Wonder said ‘What about UK vs the World’.”

Drag Race UK has taken the country by storm over three seasons and forms the basis of Campbell’s body of evidence to back up the linear revival. The show drops weekly on iPlayer rather than being box-setted and this creates a huge buzz on social media.

And boy has the buzz paid off, kickstarting a new generation of British drag queens who grew up watching the U.S. version and propelling drag into the nation’s consciousness.

It’s difficult to argue with Campbell’s notion that Drag Race UK will be “part of the TV history of Britain” within five years.

Her content strategy since taking the Controller role in 2019 has been to pivot BBC Three away from comedy and towards higher-budget drama and entertainment formats.

The likes of The Rap Game UK, Glow Up and Eating With My Ex are seen as essential to the performance of the new channel and Campbell is asking indies to think about what a BBC version of Love Island would look like. One such attempt, Love In The Flesh, is hosted by former Love Island contestant Zara McDermott and will launch shortly, while formats including dance/dating show I Like The Way You Move have been well received.

Other non-scripted offerings such as irreverent Northern Irish tractor format The Fast And The Farmer (ish) also fit neatly into Campbell’s way of thinking and will be one of the first originals to air on the new channel.

The Belfast-based commissioner is obsessed with representing all corners of the UK and she is one of the few senior BBC commissioners to be based outside of London.

BBC Three will soon have new targets in place to order two-thirds of its content from beyond the capital (other channels only require 50%) and Campbell returns to this topic on several occasions.

Shows from outside London also dominate the scripted slate, with Irish-set Sally Rooney adaptation Conversations With Friends (pictured – right) set to be one of the channel’s debut drama series.

Campbell hopes Element Pictures’ big-budget Lenny Abrahamson-directed 10-parter, which is co-produced with Hulu, can replicate the success of BAFTA-winning smash Normal People, the previous Sally Rooney adaptation that made superstars of leads Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones.

Campbell says Conversations With Friends will “emotionally punch [the viewer] in the stomach.”

Also on the scripted slate is Wrecked, a mystery thriller on a cruise ship from emerging talent Ryan J. Brown, along with newcomer Nicôle Lecky’s Fleabag-esque Mood and horror series Red Rose from Sex Education producer Eleven and eOne, which is created and written by the Clarkson twins.

“What unites these dramas is they are rooted in the reality of somewhere quite specific,” says Campbell. “I’m always thinking conceptually about what it’s like being 22 years old and living in [South Yorkshire town] Doncaster, or [Northern Irish city] Derry, or [Scottish city] Aberdeen. We want dramas that replicate these experiences.”

While the previous iteration of BBC Three linear faced some criticism for showing wall-to-wall Family Guy and American Dad repeats, there are also plans to air higher-end lower-run acquisitions such as Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens and Hulu’s Shrill, both of which already perform well on iPlayer.

Acquisitions will be limited in the main as the channel has committed to 75% of its content being BBC original programing.

Meanwhile, BBC Three is snapping up sports rights and has landed a coup in the shape of the semi-finals and final of football’s Africa Cup of Nations, along with Winter Olympics highlights, while there are also plans for TV premiers of youth-skewing movies including The Young Offenders film and BBC Films’ Blue Story.

Campbell is also focused on the teenage demographic and the pre-watershed 7pm-9pm slot will focus more on 13–16-year-olds, as the BBC bids to hang on to these quintessentially YouTube-obsessed teens.

Shows such as the Blu Hydrangea-hosted cosplay format Stitch Please were ordered to appeal to this audience and have been given a pre-watershed feel and Campbell is in constant discussion with BBC Children’s Director Patricia Hidalgo over how the demographic can be better served.

A new era

The strategy has clearly been thought through but, next month, BBC Three moves into a new era of tightrope-walking: keeping a notoriously jumpy generation of young people focused on a linear channel while at the same time fulfilling the wider BBC strategic demand of growing iPlayer.

The “hard work really starts now,” according to acclaimed comedy exec and Roughcut TV MD Ash Atalla, who is a prominent campaigner for BBC Three’s linear return and has produced some of its biggest shows including People Just Do Nothing.

“I really hope the channel has sufficient funds for originals and it doesn’t simply become an aggregator because it feels like BBC Three has to prove itself all over again,” says Atalla.

Campbell, who will also have her hands full temporarily taking on Patrick Holland’s Factual Director job, has high hopes.

Within one year, she is counting on BBC Three having attracted that “extra layer of audience.”

By year five, she wants to have built “massive returning shows” while blooding the next generation of British on-screen stars, some of whom even text her during the interview.

“My hope is that these shows commissioned all around the UK become franchises,” she concludes.

“And I want to create stars of the future. I want to be part of their journey.”

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