Brian Wilson: Crunch time now for BBC Alba, a Scottish success story

The Gaelic TV channel reaches far beyond those who speak the language, and can get even better if it is given proper support says Brian Wilson

BBC Alba presenter Fiona Mackenzie. The channel  has ten times more weekly viewers than there are Gaelic speakers, but needs to increase its original content if it is to grow.
BBC Alba presenter Fiona Mackenzie. The channel has ten times more weekly viewers than there are Gaelic speakers, but needs to increase its original content if it is to grow.

Issues surrounding the BBC Charter and its implications for broadcasting are likely to gain a high profile in the coming weeks. It would be a pity if, in the political melee, a quiet Scottish success story was overlooked – BBC Alba.

Although its raison d’etre is as a Gaelic broadcaster, BBC Alba reaches 700,000 viewers each week. It accounts for half the commissions in Scotland from independent production companies. It offers a steady stream of quality programmes which would not otherwise be made, mainly on Scottish subjects.

By any standard of media accounting, BBC Alba has achieved all this on a shoestring budget. It broadcasts for seven hours daily but only 1.9 are filled with original content, including news and live sport. The rest consists of repeats, delving deep not only into BBC Alba’s own modest archive but the entire previous output of Gaelic television.

Some of these, it must be said, are very good. The BBC Gaelic department has a history of producing current affairs programmes in particular where quality was in inverse proportion to quantity. However, there are limits to how often viewers in any language should be asked to endure fascinating throw-backs to the 1970s and 1980s.

The current funding review is a crunch point for BBC Alba. It will either survive at its present level or extend its repertoire and role. There is a particular need, from a language perspective, for more children’s programmes and also a more consistent standard of popular entertainment. The channel’s supporters are sensibly realistic in their demands, which may give them a better chance of being listened to.

In the late 1990s, as Minister with responsibility for Gaelic, I commissioned Neil Fraser, a distinguished broadcaster and Gael, to chart a course for establishing a Gaelic television channel. At that time, the objective was to have the new channel broadcasting within five years. In fact, it took until 2008 for BBC Alba to see the light of day.

The major sticking point had been Treasury resistance to funding it. The channel had initially been conceived of as a freestanding entity with direct government grant, following the S4C model in Wales. However, it was the S4C model which frightened the bean-counters since the cost had risen steadily to around £100 million a year.

Nobody was talking about anything like that for a Gaelic channel but the precedent created resistance which was difficult to overcome. Eventually, the BBC helped break the impasse and that was to their great credit.

Funding responsibility was devolved to Holyrood with £10 million added to the block grant as dowry. The balance (initially £4 million) came (in kind) from the BBC who formed a partnership with the Gaelic broadcasting agency – Seirbheis nam Meadhanan Gaidhlig (MG ALBA)– the first joint venture the BBC had entered into.

It was a formula which got the channel going but subsequently proved difficult to improve upon. Both UK and Scottish Governments have chipped in the odd additional million over the past few years so currently, BBC Alba’s budget stands at £20.6 million - £12.8 million from the Scottish Government and £7.8 million from the BBC, all coming “in kind” – i.e. mainly programmes which Pacific Quay makes for Alba.

Meanwhile, the Treasury finally prevailed and the UK Government neatly passed funding S4C to the BBC - £110 million this year, which was effectively a cut to the BBC’s own budget. Of this, £35 million is “in kind”, mainly content. BBC Alba does not see much prospect of closing the cash chasm between itself and S4C from any source. Instead, it hopes to persuade the BBC to close the “content” gap by contributing to more programmes for Alba.

The BBC’s “content” contribution to S4C equates to ten hours programming a week, compared to 4.2 for the Gaelic channel. If parity was achieved, this would mean three hours a day of original content on BBC Alba. Given that much of BBC Scotland’s expertise lies in programmes for children and young people, an extension of this emphasis into Gaelic television would fit closely with BBC Alba’s own priorities. It’s not a huge ask.

From its inception, BBC Alba has been set audience targets to justify its existence. There are ten times more weekly viewers than Gaelic speakers. The main mechanism for achieving this has been sport with both Scottish Rugby and the SPFL heavily featured. This creates a Scotland-wide “win-win” – viewers receive coverage they would not otherwise be offered, and can turn the sound down if they like, while the Gaelic audience gets live broadcasting in their own language.

Other devices for widening the audience have proved more controversial, including use of sub-titles. To maximize benefit for the language, particularly among learners, it should not be impossible to make sub-titles optional rather than obligatory. I hope when it enters its second decade, hopefully with more secure funding, BBC Alba will address these issues creatively, once freed from pressure to justify its existence.

The inescapable fact is that the channel’s reason for existing is to provide vital support to the Gaelic language and specifically to meet obligations which the Labour government entered into in 1998 when the UK became a signatory to the European Declaration on Minority Languages. That should never be lost sight of.

It has long been Gaelic’s good fortune to enjoy cross-party political support. The Tories do not get credit for much between 1979 and 1997 but it was they who created and expanded the Gaelic Broadcasting Fund as precursor of the full channel. All parties currently support the case for an increase in the BBC’s contribution, through content.

Gaelic will live or die within Scotland alone. No minority language can survive in the 21st century with all odds stacked against it and broadcasting is one of the critical factors. The BBC has acquired that responsibility which has perhaps ended up as a good thing, for it is uniquely capable of recognising the cultural diversity which should command respect in every constituent part of the United Kingdom.