The BBC has been ordered to meet a minimum quota of the amount of network productions it makes in Scotland, with the corporation facing new rules which will compel it to spend the same amount on programmes per head across the UK’s devolved nations.
The new rules, set out by the media regulator, Ofcom, specify that Scottish spending must account for at least eight per cent of the corporation’s overall expenditure on network programming.
Had the benchmark been in place in 2015, when just 7.7% of network spending took place in Scotland, the BBC would have fallen foul of the regulator, potentially leaving it open to a sizable fine. However, the figure rose last year to 10.3%, well up on the new Ofcom quota as well as BBC Scotland’s internal target of 8.6%.
Under the new rules, which will come into force next year, the BBC must also ensure that at least eight per cent of the overall number of network programming hours are made in Scotland - the first time such a minimum quota has been set.
BBC Scotland described the new regulatory conditions as “tough and challenging,” but the Association of Film and Television Practitioners Scotland (AFTPS) said more needed to be done to prevent the so-called “lift and shift” approach to meeting quotas.
Following the publication of the rules, which form part of a new operating licence for the BBC, much attention will likely fall on Ofcom’s stipulation that the corporation “will be required to spend broadly the same amount on programmes, per head, in all four of the UK’s nations.”
No specific funding target has been laid out, and it remains unclear how the new rule will remedy the huge disparity between the amount of the money the BBC raises in Scotland and how much it spends here, when compared to other devolved nations.
According to the BBC’s own estimated figures in its latest annual report, it will raise £321.7m from Scottish licence fee payers in 2017, yet spend just 72% of that (£233m) in Scotland. In Wales, nearly 99% (£185.9m) of the £188.5m raised is spent in Wales, while in Northern Ireland, the proportion is 97% - a £97.2m spend based on £99.8m revenue).
Asked if the new regulatory framework would change that, a spokesman for Ofcom said: “Ofcom doesn’t have a role in relation to the proportion of the licence fee that goes to BBC Scotland.
“What we are required to do is hold the BBC to account for performance across its services. One of the ways we can do that is by setting regulatory conditions on the UK public services.”
Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of Ofcom’s new conditions will be Gaelic viewers. Ofcom, the BBC’s first independent, external regulator, has tasked BBC Alba with ensuring 75% of its output is devoted to original productions, up from the current figure, understood to be around 27%. That will mean an additional three hours of new content every day.
Elsewhere, however, the BBC is unlikely to require significant investment to meet the new baselines set out by Ofcom.
For example, the regulator stipulates that there must be at least 290 hours of news and current affairs programming on BBC One Scotland. While that is a notable increase on the existing commitment of 265 hours, the corporation actually aired 361 hours of such content last year.
The same applies for non-news programming on BBC One and BBC Two Scotland, as well as news and current affairs programming on BBC Radio Scotland; in each case, Ofcom has raised the baseline, but the BBC is already outperforming the revised minimum.
Indeed, it is unlikely the network spending quotas unveiled by Ofcom yesterday will usher in any significant new investment to BBC Scotland.
Those minimum targets are already being met and, if anything, look likely to increase in the near future. Earlier this year, as part of its announcement of a new Scottish television channel, the BBC said it would be spending an additional £60m in Scotland on network television output until March 2019, with a particular focus on drama and factual programming. That means BBC Scotland’s 2015/6 budget of £64m has increased to around £84m, and will remain at that level for the next two years.
One BBC Scotland source said: “There are things that are welcome in the Ofcom’s regulation, but it is limited in the respect that very little of what it has set out will deliver any kind of major spending increase in Scotland. You can raise the baselines, but if the minimum is already being met, it hardly acts as a spur for change.
“Overall it amounts to keeping BBC Scotland on its toes. I think people in here and the public wanted more than that, especially when it comes to spending the money that is raised in Scotland.”
Belle Doyle, a spokeswoman for the AFTPS, said: “Ofcom have to tighten up how they work out they classify Scottish production spend. That means not having London production companies getting a commission from BBC Scotland, coming in for four weeks and doing a bit of filming, and then going off. That is not a Scottish production.”
Across the UK, Ofcom has said BBC One and BBCT Two will be required to broadcast original content in 90% of peak evening hours.
From next year, it will require at least 75% of all programme hours on the BBC’s most popular TV channels to be original productions, “commissioned by the BBC for UK audiences”. That quota will reach 90% during peak evening hours on the two main channels.
The regulator also said it will require “more music from new and emerging UK artists” on Radio 1 and Radio 2.
In a statement, BBC Scotland said: “These are a tough and challenging set of requirements which rightly demand a distinctive BBC which serves and represents all audiences throughout the whole UK. We will now get on with meeting these requirements and continuing to provide the world-class, creative BBC the public wants.”
“At BBC Scotland we are in a good place to take the challenges on with a wide range of network programming from drama such as Shetland, to day-time, entertainment and factual programming. Network TV spend in Scotland in 2016 was 10.3%, well beyond our 8.6% target. This equated to over £84m spent on network TV content made in Scotland for the UK.”
It added: “Earlier this year we unveiled plans to make the biggest single investment in broadcast content in Scotland in over twenty years. This included proposals for a new BBC Scotland television channel, major investments in Scottish programming across network TV output, and further investment in BBC Alba. We are committed to doing more to help Scotland and its creative industries.”
A spokeswoman for Scottish Government said it expected the new regulation would ensure Scotland gets a “fairer share” of the BBC’s investment in programmes.
She added: “We see the quotas set by Ofcom as a minimum and expect the BBC to go further, we expect Ofcom to ensure the BBC respects the spirit of this by commissioning programming that is genuinely from Scotland.
“We’re disappointed with Ofcom’s decision to have a single UK licence, we believe a dedicated licence for Scotland would have provided more transparency and accountability to licence payers in Scotland.
“New requirements to address under-representation and to ensure the BBC better represents audiences both on and off screen are a step in the right direction. We also welcome Ofcom plans for in-depth review of how audiences are represented and portrayed and look forward to seeing more details on how this will support work to measure BBC performance in Scotland.”