Can the arrival of £31 million and 80 new journalist jobs for a new, dedicated Scottish BBC TV channel be anything other than very good news? Yes, it can, if the flagship news programme is already destined to fail.
And however unpopular it is to point this out, failure is possible because BBC management has tied young hands at the channel by deciding it cannot broadcast news at the same time as every other news provider and must instead attract viewers at 9pm when competitors broadcast their most attractive entertainment and drama offerings. If the news programme (likely to swallow more than half the channel’s budget) doesn’t establish an audience quickly, the whole channel may fail to gain more than the niche status of the valiant but underfunded BBC Alba.
Meanwhile, network news will continue to deliver its problematic version of “national” news, which increasingly has direct relevance only for English viewers. The problem of the “news where you are” – and the preferred solution of a “Scottish Six” replacing Reporting Scotland and the Six O’Clock News – has been identified by many voices beyond the “nationalist” community.
In June 2016, the Future for Public Service Television Inquiry, led by a Labour peer, backed a Scottish Six. Two months later the Conservative-led Commons culture, media and sport committee did likewise. Its acting chair, Tory MP Damian Collins, said: “The Six O’Clock News in Scotland is currently split into two. The main news stories… are presented from London while Scottish news is presented from Glasgow. In the post- devolution era, this can lead to network news programmes transmitted from London leading on several purely English stories – for instance on health, justice or education. We believe that it is perfectly reasonable for editorial decisions on the running order for television news broadcasts in Scotland to be made in Scotland, and broadcast from Scotland, as they are already for radio.”
In other words, even unionist MPs connected the record dissatisfaction rates among BBC viewers in Scotland (far higher than any other part of the UK) with the current news offering on BBC1 between 6pm and 7pm.
That’s why pilot programmes for a Scottish Six were conducted in secret at Pacific Quay – and despite a minor upset when the new charter suggested “the BBC should … help contribute to the social cohesion and wellbeing of the United Kingdom”, it seemed all was well until last week’s surprise announcement by director general Tony Hall which finally knocked the Scottish Six on the head and established the present unsatisfactory split offering as sacrosanct.
Of course that’s not the way the decision was described. The new channel will simply have a full hour of integrated Scottish, national and international news at 9pm rather than 6pm – what difference will a couple of hours make? Actually, all the difference in the world. If the house-selling mantra is location, location, location, then the success of broadcasting schedules is timing, timing, timing.
The main TV and radio news bulletins on every channel are timed to deliver news when listeners and viewers are willing and ready to consume it – 7:30-9am, 12-2pm, 5-7pm and 10-11pm.
At these times the audience is preparing to leave home for school, work or study, having a lunchtime break, coming home and eating an evening meal or getting ready for bed.
The world over, those patterns of human behaviour are the same; viewers are ready and able to concentrate on news and the news cycle therefore works towards producing news for those time slots.
This reality creates big problems for a news programme that doesn’t air until 9pm – in the summer of 2018.
First, viewers will probably have sampled the news offerings of other channels earlier and may feel they are watching a rehash unless news priorities on the Scottish channel are dramatically different. At 9pm viewers may no longer be in the mood for an hour-long news programme.
Second, despite promises that the whole BBC network will be available to the new Scottish channel, I ha’e ma doots. Reporters and correspondents have either finished their work for a 6pm deadline or are still cutting for the 10pm news. The last thing they’ll welcome is a request to down tools or return to base to service the Scottish news outlet. Of course the Scottish Six also prompted worries about battles for top correspondents with network news. How could Laura Kuenssberg lead both programmes, for example? Well, she couldn’t. But that’s why the BBC Scotland channel has been given a decent budget – to recruit more top-notch political correspondents of its own. It’s also not hard to devise running orders so correspondents appear in Scotland minutes before or after their network slot – if there is goodwill on both sides. It’s been done for decades on Radio Scotland – and while the visual element makes TV news harder to pull off well, it should be easier for BBC Scotland to “poach” contributors within minutes of their network appearance rather than hours later. Equally, I’d be surprised if Scottish journalists can produce two totally different versions of stories for Reporting Scotland at 6:30pm and the Scottish channel news at 9pm. Yet if items are samey, viewers wont bother watching the “repeat”.
Third, since the new BBC channel won’t air until mid-2018 it will have already missed the boat, commercially and politically speaking. STV’s new channel is due to broadcast this year – well-timed to deal with massive issues such as Brexit and perhaps a second indyref while the BBC is offering nowt beyond Reporting Scotland since its lacklustre current affairs programme Scotland 2016 was kiboshed last year. The Scottish Six was the only way to fill that gap – if pilots were successful the politically responsible course would have been full steam ahead.
So who decided and why? Is it simply impertinent to ask what went wrong? Could BBC Scotland decide to get on air earlier than 7pm and go for a Scottish Six after all? The answer is no. The constraints within Aunty’s gift are non-negotiable – and that spells trouble ahead.
BBC staff have suffered years of cuts and viewers north of the border are equally demoralised. So I sincerely hope I am wrong. But conditions could hardly be tougher for the fledgling Scottish channel – and Aunty could easily have made it otherwise.