The hurdles to reinstate BBC Three on linear TV



With the BBC actively looking at options to restore BBC Three, what are the hurdles for a return?

From a programming point of view, the promised boost in budget means providing actual content for any reinstated service is sorted.

And the good news is that, from a technical point of view, most of BBC Three's former bandwidth is still available, should the BBC simply want to return to its pre-2016 evening only service.

The channel originally timeshared a slot with CBBC, with CBBC giving way to BBC Three at 6:57pm every evening, and switching back at 5:30am.

Since BBC Three closed in 2016, CBBC has extended its hours until 9pm, leaving the remaining bandwidth available for any reinstated service, on both SD and HD feeds - except in Scotland on Freeview.

North of the border, CBBC's Freeview HD feed is taken off air at 7pm to free up bandwidth for the HD version of the new BBC Scotland channel. It's a result of less bandwidth being available on Freeview (digital terrestrial TV), compared to other TV platforms.

As budgets are redistributed across the BBC to fund BBC Three, it's not difficult to see CBBC's two extra hours being cut back again to give BBC Three all of its previous hours back again.

But while reinstating the bandwidth for the service seems straightforward, being able to return to a high profile channel number seems less than certain.

On Freeview, its old channel number (7) has been taken over by some local TV services in England and Northern Ireland, Channel 4 in Wales (because S4C takes the fourth slot there) and BBC Alba in Scotland. There are no obvious high ranking numbers available for use across all of the UK - the fact that BBC Four in Scotland is down on channel 68 as a result of the BBC Scotland channel taking channel 9 is a reminder of the scarcity of available channel numbers. Meanwhile, its ex-HD channel number (105), was taken over by Channel 5 HD.

Similar issues arise on other digital TV platforms, which have moved on since BBC Three closed and filled the gaps left behind.

On Virgin Media, E4 subsequently took over BBC Three's channel number after parent broadcaster Channel 4 bid millions for the prime slot of channel 106. It's clear that with such sums of money involved, BBC Three isn't going to get an easy ride back on to prominent slots on TV platforms without the threat of platform operators wanting some form of financial compensation or Ofcom getting involved to force operators to give Three a better slot.

On Sky, while channel 115 may seem an obvious candidate, it would mean demoting BBC One HD in England and BBC Scotland north of the border. Alternatively, BBC Four could be moved down the channel list if it is to remain on-air alongside BBC Three - although Ofcom is likely to disapprove of such a move, after previously telling platform operators that they must make public service broadcasters and their offshoots easy to find in prominent positions on their Electronic Programme Guides.

So while getting the bandwidth to reinstate the channel will be easy, getting it on a prominent channel number may prove to be difficult or even expensive unless BBC Four is demoted like in Scotland on Freeview or closed altogether. And if other channels need to move out of the way, it seems that an Ofcom intervention is inevitable.