The digital channel BBC3 has, for the first time, overtaken BBC1 and Channel 4 as viewers' first choice for alternative comedy.
The youth-orientated channel, which is showing the UK debut of the American version of The Office tomorrow night, has established a strong reputation for cutting-edge comedy - and pioneering shows such as Little Britain, Nighty Night and Monkey Dust.
A survey of 3,000 adults by the BBC showed that, in the first three months of 2005, BBC3 was named the best channel for alternative comedy. Twenty per cent of all adults surveyed said the digital channel was their first choice for alternative comedy, compared to 19 per cent for BBC1 and just 15 per cent for Channel 4, which traditionally has a strong reputation for alternative comedy.
In homes with digital television, the figure rose to 29 per cent for BBC3, 15 per cent for BBC1 and 12 per cent for Channel 4, while 40 per cent of all 16- to 34-year-olds, BBC3's target audience, named the channel best for alternative comedy. Six months ago, most viewers, 23 per cent, named BBC1 as the best alternative-comedy channel. Tomorrow night, BBC3 will show the first episode of the US remake of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's hit "mockumentary" sitcom The Office.
Gervais, whose new sitcom Extras will be shown on BBC2 this summer, predicted the American version would be a hit with British audiences. In it, Brent has been replaced by Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell, and the setting of a paper company in Slough has been transported to Scranton, Pennysylvania. Gervais said: "After episode one, the next five episodes are totally original and they stand up in their own right. They have done a brilliant job."
Critics in the US, where the original British version was a cult hit, were divided.