A final decision on the linear return of the channel is due within weeks. But BBC Three won’t be able to simply return to its old channel numbers.
BBC Three surrendered its former channel slots in 2016 when the linear channel was closed. Sky, Channel 4 and other broadcasters have voiced their opposition to BBC Three returning. As a result, BBC Three may not be able to get the slots it wants without Ofcom intervention. And it may end up sitting below BBC Four in channel listings, meaning BBC channels are in the wrong order.
BBC channels, alongside public service channels from ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, STV and S4C are entitled to prominent slots above commercial channels. For most channels, this has been defined as a channel number in the first 24 slots. Commercial operators and public service broadcasters with commercial spin-offs are not happy about giving way to the BBC.
Rival public broadcasters, including Channel 4, have called for any reinstated service to be restricted to the 24th channel slot on each platform. Channel 4 is concerned that the BBC may subsequently swap BBC Three and BBC Four around. Apart from meaning the channels would appear in the right order in the channel list, promoting BBC Three would put it ahead of E4. On some platforms, BBC Three will appear above ITV2.
Plans for each platform
Digital UK, which oversees the Freeview channel numbering system, has been consulting with stakeholders over changes to channel numbers to fit in BBC Three.
Anticipating that Ofcom will order the channel be given a top 24 slot in the channel list, Digital UK has indicated BBC Three could be allocated Freeview channel 23. Dave Ja Vu would move from channel 23 to channel 25. BBC Four in Scotland currently uses channel 24, limiting its use elsewhere. All subsequent channels would move one slot down the list. This would ripple down the channel list so that 4seven would end up on channel 49.
A final decision on potential changes is due this autumn, following Ofcom’s final verdict on BBC Three’s linear return.
The BBC itself now expects BBC Three to end up on Sky channel 115 in most of the UK. However, this can only happen once BBC One HD has been regionalised. Originally, the BBC had stated it expected to land the 24th slot on the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG). Sky has already stood its ground by reallocating the slot (channel 124) to Sky Nature. It was originally used by Fox, which closed down earlier this year.
On Freesat, the BBC is already planning to remove BBC standard definition simulcasts on channel 110 to make room for BBC Three.
On Virgin Media, the BBC is proposing to use channel 108 in most of the UK, once BBC One HD can be regionalised. But the channel slot in Wales is already taken by Channel 4. Virgin Media has not provided a public response to these proposals.
How BBC One HD regionalisation affects BBC Three’s channel slots
At the moment, BBC One HD is broadcast on a different Sky and Virgin Media channel number because it does not offer regional services in England. Once BBC One HD is regionalised in England, it will qualify for a move to channel 101, replacing the current SD regional BBC One service.
The BBC hopes that the freed-up channel number can then be allocated to BBC Three. It recognises this may not be possible for the channel’s first 18 months back on air – indicating a possible timeframe for the BBC to complete HD regionalisation.
If Ofcom agrees, BBC Three will return to linear TV in early 2022. It will be available from 7pm each night. The BBC has provided the channel with a budget, programmes and linear broadcast capacity. However finding a channel slot for people to find and watch it might be the hardest part.