JACK McCONNELL is facing a battle to preserve his weekly High Noon showdown with opposition leaders after TV viewing figures for First Minister’s Question Time plummeted.
The BBC has revealed the average number of people tuning in has dropped from 46,000 to 18,000 since the First Minister’s regular clash with the SNP’s John Swinney and Tory leader David McLetchie was switched to midday on Thursdays.
Mr McConnell himself proposed the change from the previous 3.10pm slot, partly because school groups visiting the Scottish Parliament often had to leave before the question session was over.
MSPs agreed to try out the midday Question Time as an experiment until the turn of the year. But now a large majority of those registering their views have voted it a flop.
However, Mr McConnell likes the new slot and is eager to continue his noon exchanges.
A spokesman for the First Minister said: "He thinks it is working well; the public who attend the parliament have responded well and schools can get in to see the whole of Question Time.
"This is about the parliament holding the First Minister to account. If the BBC has a problem promoting its programme to viewers, that’s up to them."
But the spokesman also suggested the fact that extracts could now be shown on lunchtime news bulletins, as well as later ones, meant Question Time could be reaching a wider audience than before.
"Jack’s view is we should persevere with the new format and the new time.
"We could look at it again when we are in the new building, but it needs to be given time to bed in."
He said although a majority of the MSPs who expressed a view had said the experiment had not been a success, it was not clear that amounted to a majority of all MSPs.
And he claimed: "More and more people are coming round to the earlier slot."
However, the Conservatives said that the noon experiment had been a flop.
"The TV audience has collapsed," said a spokesman. "TV viewers are voting with their off buttons.
"The only reason ever given for the move to midday was for schoolchildren, but I can’t say I’ve noticed a huge increase in numbers visiting." The Tories added that First Minister’s Question Time should be moved to 2pm on Thursdays, which would suit broadcasters better and still fall well within the school day.
Mr McConnell’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, also want to abandon the noon experiment.
"It hasn’t worked," said a Lib Dem spokesman.
"It’s not the most effective platform for presenting the parliament."
The SNP has not yet expressed a view on the issue.
When Question Time was repositioned in the parliamentary schedule, it was also extended by ten minutes to a full half-hour, allowing the leaders of the Greens and the Scottish Socialists time to ask questions as well, without squeezing out backbenchers.
The Scottish Parliament’s procedures committee is due to discuss the issue next week.
Questionnaires filled in by 462 members of the public attending the parliament showed 47 per cent supported the current timing, 11 per cent preferred the previous arrangements and 16 per cent said both were equally convenient.
On the issue of duration, 45 per cent supported the 30-minute slot, 27 per cent said it should be longer and 11 per cent said it should be shorter.
The committee is also proposing an extended general Question Time to allow ministers to be quizzed in greater depth.
As well as increasing the time available to an hour, part of the session would be allocated for questions to particular ministers on their subject area.
Committee convener, Lib Dem MSP Iain Smith, said viewing figures for Question Time would have to be taken into account when considering timing, but they would not be the "total determining factor".