Insight: Will Scotland’s first dedicated TV channel attract viewers?
Exactly two years have passed since BBC director-general Tony Hall announced Scotland would be getting its own television channel.
Tonight, at 7pm, the waiting, planning and speculation will finally be over and a new Scottish screen era will have arrived.
The official fanfare will be provided by one of Scotland’s coolest bands, Chvrches, who have joined forces with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on an opening sequence featuring their hit song Miracle. It’s a matter for speculation how much the choice of song reflects the views of BBC Scotland staff who have been living and breathing the channel.
The one real certainty is that the debates and arguments about it are only going to intensify when it goes on air.
But will its launch herald a bold new era for Scottish broadcasting – or a false dawn that many long-time critics of the BBC’s Scottish output fear?
Lord Hall declared it would meet a growing demand from viewers for BBC Scotland to “better reflect their lives and better reflect modern Scotland.”
At the time, the new channel was partly seen as a response to political pressure from the SNP for the BBC to respond to criticism of its coverage of the 2014 independence referendum and widespread evidence of lower trust ratings north of the border. But its origins go back much further – arguably as far back as the devolution referendum in 1997.
It did not take long for debates to rage about whether broadcasting powers should be devolved from Westminster to Holyrood. The prospect of a separate “Scottish Six” news programme also became a cause célèbre.
But it was not until the SNP swept into power in 2007 that the prospects of a genuine broadcasting revolution gathered pace. Within months, first minister Alex Salmond had announced that a new broadcasting commission, headed up by Blair Jenkins, a former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland, would set out a “strategic way forward” for the industry. Its key recommendation was that Scotland should get its own dedicated digital channel with a budget of up to £75m. But it stopped short of backing the full devolution of broadcasting or the “Scottish Six” idea.
The broadcasting debate burst back into life when the Scottish Government’s 2013 independence White Paper recommended a separate Scottish Broadcasting Service – using the BBC’s staff and facilities.
Far from killing off demands for change, the referendum result was the real catalyst. Several surveys carried out in the wake of the 2014 poll found viewers in Scotland were much more critical of the BBC than in other parts of the UK. The gauntlet was thrown down by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the 2015 Edinburgh TV Festival when she demanded a dedicated new channel north of the border to “empower BBC Scotland like never before”.
Within 18 months, Lord Hall was announcing an extra £40m in funding north of the border – described as the biggest single investment in Scottish broadcasting for more than 20 years – and a channel which would be “bold, creative and ambitious”,
But is that is what is being delivered?
By far the main concern about the new channel is that its budget is simply too low. But there are also doubts among broadcasting industry watchers, both within and outwith BBC Scotland, about who the channel is aimed at.
Neil Blain, professor emeritus of communications at Stirling University, said: “You could easily spend two-and-a-half times the proposed budget on a stand-alone Scottish channel. About a decade ago, the Scottish Broadcasting Commission thought it should be £75m – broadcasting doesn’t get cheaper over time.
“BBC Scotland will need to attract an identity as a channel. In the Republic of Ireland, RTE, despite a lot of competition from UK broadcasters, has its own recognised place in viewing habits. This is what the new BBC Scotland has to do, and with real-time TV viewing in decline they have a challenge on their hands. Viewers will need to be persuaded away from the multiple other activities, including their social media commitments.”
Broadcaster and journalist Stuart Cosgrove, who led the bid to try to bring Channel 4’s headquarters to Glasgow, said: “By far the main issue [with the new channel] is its purpose. The BBC have given out mixed messages. On the one hand, they’re keen to attract younger audiences who for a whole variety of reasons are being lost to television, but they have also built the schedule around a 9pm news hour which is there to answer claims that the BBC does not sufficiently address the distinctive nature of Scottish news and current affairs. These are maybe ambitions that are in contradiction.”
Steve Carson, the BBC executive in charge of the channel, admits he is hoping to attract more of the 16-34 audience than its traditional output, but is also conscious of changing viewing habits among a wider demographic.
“A proportion of the channel’s viewing will be live, but another significant proportion will be on catch-up,” he said. “I can’t emphasise enough that the linear TV channel is only part of this – iPlayer viewing is really significant now. Right from the get-go, we’re looking at whether ideas work in our digital and social spaces, as well as on TV. Audiences are consuming stuff in so many different ways. We’ll be getting it out to people where they want it.”
When the first glimpse of the channel’s schedule was revealed in October there was a muted response to news that shows like Scot Squad and River City would be helping to fill its schedules, along with a car-based game show fronted by wrestling star Graeme “Grado” Stevely and a documentary on beauty blogger Jamie Genevieve.
But by the time of an official launch in January, the final series of Still Game and a new Question Time-style debate programme were also in the line-up.
It was announced that singer Emeli Sandé would be fronting a new talent show, two of Scotland’s leading actors, Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives, would be starring in a specially commissioned thriller, and new shows devoted to comedy and Scottish football would be aired, along with documentaries on Scotland’s biggest Asian wedding planners, the staff who work at Glasgow’s Central Station, painter Peter Howson and the 50th anniversary of Scottish Ballet.
Significantly, the line-up also included a three-part documentary on the 2014 referendum, for which Sturgeon and Salmond have both been interviewed, as well as Children Of The Devolution.
Much of the interest has focused on The Nine, the hour-long news and current affairs programme which Rebecca Curran and Martin Geissler will present from an open-plan set at the BBC’s Pacific Quay studios in Glasgow.
Hayley Valentine, editor of the programme, said: “I want the programme to feel more normal and of the people. It’s about trying break down those barriers between the broadcaster and the audience and getting close to them. People want to see themselves and how stories affect them.”
However, writer and musician Pat Kane warns that the channel’s news coverage has a “very significant” task to win back lost trust in the BBC.
He said: “Reporting Scotland tries to portray the Scottish Parliament as the Scottish Establishment, which might be justified if that parliament was fully responsible for all negative policy outcomes – but not when the crucial powers are still, in the majority, reserved to Westminster. The Nine has a crucial role in rectifying this imbalance, which will start the corporation on the long road back to credibility in Scotland.”
Kane admitted he was “not hopeful” about the channel’s programming so far.
He added: “There’s very little of Scottish excellence in drama, literature, contemporary art and scholarship on display. We need serious investment in historical documentary and drama, so that Scots can find themselves as part of world history, not just their own kailyard, traditional or modern.”
Cosgrove, however, is more upbeat.
“It’s quite encouraging,” he said. “I like them giving a window to documentaries like Nae Pasaran and I’m look forward to their new football preview show led by much younger presenters. I understand the presence of Still Game as it guarantees audiences will sample the channel. I’d like to see them redefine factual television in the modern era and not stick too closely to conventional documentary or lame formats.”
The launch comes at a time when Scotland has a new screen agency with a budget double that previously ring-fenced for the sector by the Scottish Government, Channel 4 has pledged to establish a creative hub in Glasgow, and an operator is expected to be announced shortly for a permanent film studio in Edinburgh.
Isabel Davis, executive director at Screen Scotland said: “We’re very excited by the launch of the new BBC Scotland channel and the opportunities it presents for the creation of original content that reflects the lives of the people in Scotland. The growth of Scotland’s broadcast sector is a key ambition of Screen Scotland and we see the new channel as integral to this.”
Even the Scottish Government has wished the new channel well, albeit it with its traditional caveat, that it is not being properly funded.
A spokeswoman said: “We want to wish the range of talented staff, on and off screen, who are delivering the new channel the very best of luck.
“This is an exciting development for Scottish broadcasting, which follows the First Minister’s call for a dedicated BBC channel in Scotland.
“It represents a real opportunity for a broader range of voices, to better reflect contemporary Scotland.
“To fully take advantage of this opportunity it is clear the initial budget needs to rise for the channel to receive a fairer share of the licence fee raised in Scotland, in order to be meaningfully funded.”