Policy makers stake a claim to TV soapbox

SCOTLAND’S newest soap opera has had a shaky start, derided by the critics for its wooden scripts and dull characters.

But Scotland on Sunday can reveal that things may just have got worse for the BBC’s River City because the Scottish Executive wants to use shows such as this to help push their message on a whole range of social issues.

Ministers worry that their expensively produced adverts on everything from healthy eating to domestic violence are being ignored by viewers who channel hop or make a cup of tea in the advertising breaks.

So the Executive’s marketing chiefs are now talking to broadcasters, including the BBC, about how to work "helpful" plot lines into soaps, dramas and sitcoms, and even have their own posters and billboards lurking in the background.

Although hit soaps such as EastEnders and the now defunct Brookside have often dealt with major social issues, such as Aids, domestic abuse and sexual violence, the approach would be a first in Scotland, and for River City.

The Glasgow-produced show, which attracts 520,000 viewers a week, is a prime target, being the only regular soap on Scottish television. Scottish broadcasters have said they are open to the idea of including plot lines with messages in their shows, but have insisted they must retain editorial control.

A spokesman for the Scottish Executive said the contacts had been made between the Executive’s marketing department and broadcasters.

He added: "It’s not just about soaps. We would want to use dramas, sitcoms and all kinds of programmes to get messages across. Obviously we don’t want to interfere in any way with writers’ freedom. But there is huge scope for using the storylines of programmes to get messages across."

An Executive insider added: "In soaps, the point is made with much more subtlety, and gives people more time to think about the message. Once people have seen the same adverts a lot they lose their impact. Plot lines also get round the problem of people using the remote control to ignore the adverts. And it’s free, at a time when we want to cut costs."

Possible plots could include a young soap character finding his life collapse around him when he is caught carrying a knife. A popular star might be killed by a drunken driver, destroying the lives of his family in an instant and making a strong anti-drink-driving message. A woman might decide to leave her partner after enduring months of violence.

While all these stories might make for compelling television, producers face problems in turning other issues into good viewing. Ministers are keen to persuade parents to read to their children, walk more, eat healthily and get connected to broadband. But grated carrot salads, strolling to work, reading at bedtime and internet connections are difficult to transform into gripping TV.

Ministers are under pressure to trim the cost of government advertising. Before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, the old Scottish Office spent 2m a year on advertising - a sum which soared to more than 13m in 2002-03. While the latest 2003-04 figure of 9.4m is still more than pre-devolution, it represents a cut of 25% over the previous year.

The dilemma is how to get more publicity for less public cash. Officials have already opted to make more use of radio advertising, billboards and local newspapers. In 2002-03, 40% of the overall Executive advertising spend went on TV. In the past year that fell to just 26%.

Greg Philo, professor of communications at Glasgow University said: "The Executive is on the right track. Soaps and dramas are a very powerful way to communicate sophisticated messages. The only difficulty is the fact that scriptwriters will not want to feel that they are being told what to write by civil servants."

A spokesman for BBC Scotland said: "We would deal with any request on its own merits. What is key is that we must retain editorial control, but we have no problem with the idea. Since the inception of the BBC, the aim has been to inform and educate as well as entertain."

A spokeswoman for Scottish Television, which formerly produced the High Road soap, said: "We have no objections in principle, but this kind of approach works best in conjunction with a long-running series. We are not working on any programme such as that right now."

Roseanna Cunningham, the SNP culture spokeswoman, last night urged tough controls so that programmes would not turn into political propaganda. She said: "The Executive are rightly attempting to learn from effective initiatives from the past - in particular in relation to EastEnders and the Aids issue. However, there are limits and they will need to be extremely careful not cross the line into political controversy."

Public relations expert Jack Irvine was not impressed with the plan. "It makes me very uneasy," he said. "You have to ask yourself what else will they be slipping in? This kind of subliminal advertising strikes me as almost totalitarian in style. The broadcasters should resist this."

In the BBC soap EastEnders, Mark Fowler, played by actor Todd Carty, became the first mainstream soap character to be diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1990. The storyline came after a government request to "spread the word".

Carty commented later: "I feel that the storyline educated people at a time when there were lots of misconceptions about HIV and Aids."

When it began in the 1950s, The BBC radio show The Archers was overtly educational, being designed to persuade farmers to improve their techniques.

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