New BBC Scotland channel must beware parochialism – John McLellan

Martin Geissler is a top-quality news broadcaster and John McLellan thinks he spotted the odd wince on The Nine, the flagship news show of BBC Scotland’s new channel.

Martin Geissler fronts BBC Scotlands new flagship news programme The Nine (Picture: Alan Peebles/BBC Scotland)
Martin Geissler fronts BBC Scotlands new flagship news programme The Nine (Picture: Alan Peebles/BBC Scotland)

About 540 Scottish households can determine whether a TV show is a triumph or a turkey in Scotland, so in these days of streaming and multi-channel TV perhaps BBC Scotland executives shouldn’t be blamed for claiming the success of their new £32m channel launched this week cannot be measured by ratings alone.

That’s the size of the Scottish research sample used by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) to estimate how many viewers each programme has received, each participant having a gizmo fitted to their sets which logs their viewing habits and produces quick data – like the 700,000 people said to have watched Still Game on launch night.

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Like newspapers (Scottish readership sample over 3,000), it’s not entirely fair to judge a new product by Day One, and I’ve been involved with a couple of stinkers in my time; the launch of the tabloid Edinburgh Evening News in 1995 was particularly disastrous because the transmission kit between North Bridge and the Newhaven Road Press couldn’t cope with the new format so the paper was hours late onto the streets.

Production glitches aside, if readers or viewers give it a try but something puts them off, it takes huge effort to get them back; as the old media adage has it, nothing kills a bad product quite like good marketing.

With nothing else to punt except its own products, the BBC is a master of good self-marketing, but given Still Game’s established popularity that 700,000 figure could represent a high-water mark.

The centrepiece of the new channel, The Nine news magazine, would be “terrific”, said Director General Tony Hall, “a programme rooted in Scotland; for Scotland. It’s local. It’s national. And it’s global.” And with a new crew of 80 journalists on top of the 250 the BBC already employs in Scotland, terrific is what you’d expect.

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New BBC Scotland channel attracts 700,000 audience peak on first night

But what we got was a mash-up of the One Show and Newsnight, not sure if it was a news magazine or light entertainment, and with a homespun tone not much different from the old Fountainbridge Show on STV Edinburgh which was produced on a fraction of the new channel’s £7m news budget.

Day One’s big investigation revealed that counterfeit drugs could be bought on social media, the kind of thing which fills a Sunday newspaper spread in July and surprises no-one. It was followed by another downbeat item about HIV drugs which was notable for the casual reference to the case study’s “poly-amorous” relationship, as if a threesome is unremarkable in the liberal environs of Pacific Quay. Day Two’s revelation about the dress code for North Lanarkshire taxi drivers was more parochial than Father Ted’s house and had the code been a bowler hat and orange sash, not a collared shirt and trousers, it might have been worthy of a National news show.

Martin Geissler is a top-quality national news broadcaster and more than once I’m sure I detected the odd wince at the sheer banality of some of what he was being asked to front. Even putting national rugby and football coaches Gregor Townsend and Alex McLeish together, two of the most thoughtful and engaging personalities in Scottish sport, descended into triviality.

So too does roving reporter James Cook know what he’s doing, but his foreign jaunts were better once he got stuck into some proper interviewing, with the likes of the Icelandic Prime Minister, and it was striking how much the material benefitted from tightening up and re-purposing for the traditional 10.30pm bulletin without the gimmicks.

As for Debate Night, the Scottish version of Question Time, the only difference between the new “flagship” and the long-running parent was the Scottish accents and the absence of a desk. Chair Stephen Jardine of this parish was as Dimbleby-esque as you could want and does this sort of thing in his sleep, but after 40 years this format has surely run its course.

BBC Scotland’s head of news Gary Smith said he wanted to focus on “appreciation” rather than ratings, but on the early showings critical acclaim will be as hard to achieve as getting 100 of those 540 tellies switched over to Freeview Channel 9.

Fat Cops to be Fat Cats?

On the subject of new productions, yesterday was a big day for the director of the Edinburgh-based political think tank Reform Scotland, 45-year-old journalist Chris Deerin, whose latest work went on general release. No, not the report into languages teaching in Scottish schools or some other dust-gatherer about local government, but an album from what must be Scotland’s best-resourced hobby/mid-life crisis band, The Fat Cops, in which ex-Daily Telegraph comment editor Chris is the singer.

The debut single, Hands up, Get Down, has been out for a while, a bit like a mash-up of Calvin Harris, Sounds like Bert Kaempfert and the accompaniment to an Isis propaganda film, compete with video in which Chris wanders around derelict parts of Glasgow wearing boxing gloves for no apparent reason.

No less than Robert “Bobby Bluebell” Hodgens of “Young at Heart” fame is the guitarist and musical driving force with Pub Landlord comedian Al Murray on drums, but while fame beckons for the lesser-known members, they aren’t getting too carried away yet. “We all have jobs and families and mortgages,” Chris wrote in the Daily Record last week.

This is in itself newsworthy because the keyboard player is one Dr Neil Murray, whose other half is one JK Rowling, the Edinburgh-based author worth some £700m according to the last Sunday Times Rich List. Are we then to believe the Murray-Rowlings have to borrow to buy a house like the rest of us? Or does he have his own bolt-hole at the bottom of the garden and the missus keeps him short?

More plausibly, Chris just forgot the ivory-tinkler’s little corner of Barnton is worth as much as the GDP of half a dozen Pacific nations, if the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook published last April is to be believed.

But this time next year, Rodney, all The Fat Cops will be millionaires.