John McLellan: Hope for Scottish broadcasting despite STV2's closure

Despite the closure of STV2, there are hopeful signs for broadcasting, writes John McLellan.
STV staff staged a walkout when the closure of STV2 was announced (Pictyure: Craig Williamson/SNS)STV staff staged a walkout when the closure of STV2 was announced (Pictyure: Craig Williamson/SNS)
STV staff staged a walkout when the closure of STV2 was announced (Pictyure: Craig Williamson/SNS)

It was to be the dawn of a bright new era for UK television which, according to then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, would “provide communities with news and content that is relevant to their daily lives”.

This was 2012 and the launch of 21 local TV licences, sparking a flurry of activity among media companies anxious to secure the rights to the channels and a slice of the £40 million the BBC was going to make available. When the successful bids were announced in January 2013, one stood out because the winner of the Glasgow and Edinburgh Licences, STV, made a point of rejecting public money because it was a commercial broadcaster and wanted the channels to be viable in their own right.

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So the cheap and cheerful STV Edinburgh and STV Glasgow went live in 2015, but despite rock-bottom production costs they never approached profitability and when additional local licences were won for Dundee, Aberdeen and Ayr, the decision was taken to roll them all into the new national STV2 last year.

Now the bold experiment has come to an end with the widely expected announcement that STV2 is to close, with the loss of approximately 40 jobs when the staff consultation and redeployment is complete. Amidst the political dismay, the fact that STV gave local TV the best chance to succeed without draining the public purse seems to have been lost. But so, too, the reality of the modern media landscape has been forgotten.

The dominance of Google and Facebook in advertising markets affects commercial TV as much as it does newspaper companies and running a linear station meant STV was locked into programming with compulsory advertising slots which couldn’t generate nearly enough revenue.

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Why STV2 failed and what it means for broadcasting in Scotland

The prospect of the new BBC Scotland channel with a £32m budget, now expected to go live in February next year, was the death knell for STV2 for two reasons; firstly such audience as it had was likely to diminish and secondly the extra money for independent production was a better opportunity for a company which already produces content for the BBC.

STV will not only be going after the BBC Scotland’s commissioning budget but will now turn its focus on developing new material for the STV Player because on-demand programming is where future audiences lie and advertisers have their own demands for multi-platform packages. This calls into question the wisdom of BBC Scotland investing £32m in a traditional channel when TV consumption heads towards on-demand.

And as far as value for money is concerned, BBC Scotland has yet to adequately explain why it needs 80 new journalists to produce a one-hour news show, on top of the 250 it already employs, when the whole of STV2 only needed 59.

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Devastating and painful the closure of STV2 undoubtedly is for the employees facing redundancy, at least there are plenty of job opportunities 500 yards further down Pacific Road. So is it a hammer blow for Scottish broadcasting? Whether the millions the BBC is about to splurge on BBC Scotland is good value for public money is another debate, but it’s now politically impossible for it to be taken away and so it will be spent in Glasgow.

Then there is the regionalisation of production for Channel 4, soon to announce the location of its new headquarters and two regional production hubs. Unless the Glasgow bid is overly complacent, there must be a high chance of winning one of the hubs at least. We might actually be on the cusp of a golden age for Scottish broadcasting, so the big question is, how long before a leaner, fitter STV in a buoyant market is swallowed by ITV?

Good causes a key lotto message

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One of STV’s recent successes has been its Scottish Children’s Lottery which raises money for projects tackling child poverty, launched in 2016 just as the UK-wide National Lottery operator Camelot ran into difficulties.

Camelot’s new chief executive Nigel Railton was in Scotland last week to talk about plans for the future and a simple principle from which STV learnt will be key, to emphasise the link with good causes.

Scotland has benefitted from over £3 billion of grants from National Lottery funds, including bank-rolling the Commonwealth Games team, but fewer people associate buying a lottery ticket with helping good causes, something STV has been hammering home since the SCL was launched in 2016.

STV has also learnt that the future is in digital sales, while National Lottery tickets are still largely bought in shops. With an average commission income of £6,500, independent shopkeepers won’t want that to change so Camelot will have a balancing act to make the transition.

Am I a lizard too, Sputnik?

STV2 has 0.02 per cent of the total UK audience, but is only watched in Scotland unlike mighty RT, home of the Alex Salmond Show, with 0.04.

RT’s sister, the Edinburgh-based online agency Sputnik, this week ran an interview with David Icke, the ex-BBC sports reporter turned conspiracy theorist who claimed the Royal Family are shape-shifting lizards. Can he warn Meghan Markle before it’s too late?

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Another conspiracy theory being spread by Icke and Sputnik is that the Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, which met this week and on which I sit, is suppressing the truth about the Salisbury poisoning. The system is so devilishly cunning that I’ve not noticed, but as I put up a motion at Edinburgh council calling for Sputnik’s expulsion from the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, maybe I’m in on it ...

Final chance to for Press inquiry

As they say, in other media news, Monday could see the final attempt to set up a Leveson-style inquiry into Press behaviour. Labour peer Baroness Hollins has twice succeeded in getting her amendment to the Data Protection Bill through the House of Lords and twice it has been thrown out by the House of Commons, the last time on Tuesday.

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She gets another chance on Monday when the amendment ping-pongs back to the Lords, and if she does so, the Commons gets to strip it out for the third time on Tuesday, after which the Bill is expected to become law.

The last weekly broadsheet

And finally, June 7 will see the end of an era in Scottish news when the last broadsheet weekly paper, the Oban Times, bows to the inevitable and goes tabloid. Best of luck to editor Susan Windram and her team.