BBC Three Launch Night: an £80 million budget and what do you get? Repeats and RuPaul

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

A big-budget return yielded little in the way of new or original content. Does the channel really need to exist at all?

BBC Three Launch Night: an £80 million budget and what do you get? Repeats and RuPaul
Celeste Dring and Freya Parker star in sketch show Lazy Susan
Celeste Dring and Freya Parker star in sketch show Lazy Susan CREDIT: Tiger Aspect Productions

BBC Three is back on television. It has an £80 million budget and the pre-publicity promised a menu of “exciting, groundbreaking content”. So why did its launch night have all the freshness of a stale loaf?

A double bill from the fourth series of Eating With My Ex; a documentary that has been available on iPlayer for a week; repeats of Fleabag. Did that £80 million fall down the back of a filing cabinet? The BBC assures us that new shows are in the pipeline, including an adaptation of Sally Rooney’s debut novel Conversations with Friends. But it is baffling that the channel has chosen to kick off with a line-up this weak.

There was a sort-of-new show in the shape of RuPaul’s Drag Race vs The World, a global upgrade on Drag Race UK. The original is popular, so this is likely to be a hit. And a new all-female sketch show, Lazy Susan, starring Freya Parker and Celeste Dring, which has potential but is nowhere near as funny as Smack the Pony (now over 20 years old). Then again, I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m old. BBC Three’s target audience were toddlers when Smack the Pony was on air.Advertisement

Yet, whatever your age, the launch night was thin gruel. The first episode of Eating With My Ex (a show that belongs on ITV2) was a “celebrity special” featuring two wannabes whose relationship had lasted a grand total of one day while appearing on a Netflix reality show called Too Hot To Handle. The cynicism of it all was staggering.

The lack of effort put into the scheduling gets more evident as this week goes on, with repeats of This Country and Killing Eve. By Friday, the channel gives up completely, screening eight – eight! – back-to-back repeats of Angels of the North, a 2019 series about a hair salon in the north east.

The boss of BBC Three, Fiona Campbell (aged 52), has tried to explain the channel’s return to television. The rationale for taking it online-only in 2016 was that the young didn’t watch TV any more. In 2022, when watching shows on phones and on-demand has become even more of a habit, the U-turn makes no sense. 

On the one hand, Campbell says BBC Three will serve people who don’t have internet-connected TVs or decent Wi-Fi or devices, yet admitted its primary purpose is as a marketing tool to create “a lot of conversation and buzz on social” as part of the “the flywheel of discovery” (no, me neither) which will in turn push those viewers to check out more content on iPlayer or other terrestrial BBC channels.

Conversations with Friends will no doubt create that buzz. The channel has also commissioned what sounds like a strong drama, Life and Death in the Warehouse, which is from the Bafta-winning team behind Murdered By My Father and will depict the grim working conditions inside Britain’s giant distribution centres. The acclaimed comedy Starstruck returns soon for a second series.

But the central question remains. Why do these shows need to have a channel of their own? Killing Eve, Fleabag, Normal People – the biggest BBC Three shows became breakout hits because they were broadcast on BBC One. Last week, The Tourist was streamed one million times by under-35s – yet it’s a BBC One drama. There doesn’t seem much point to BBC Three’s existence.

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