BBC Scotland’s new channel: a fresh start that reflects a devolved UK

BBC Scotland’s new channel: a fresh start that reflects a devolved UK

We live in an ever-expanding TV universe with new channels appearing regularly. Still, it might seem surprising that the BBC, with all its financial problems, has launched with much fanfare a new digital channel in Scotland. So, given the tight budgets and a relatively small populace, why Scotland, why now – and is it any good?

In 1999, Scotland and Wales joined the (currently suspended) Stormont government in Northern Ireland to create two more devolved nations within the UK. These three bodies have different financial and legislative responsibilities (devolved matters) while significant powers – reserved matters – remain at Westminster, in areas such as defence, trade, immigration, the constitution and broadcasting.

The lie of the land

But the principal public service broadcasters do not really reflect this current UK constitutional set up. ITV has long since abandoned a regional-based model in favour of a centralised one, and even Scottish Television (STV) is frequently rumoured to be about to surrender its autonomy.

Channel 4, despite obligations to source a significant proportion of its output beyond the south-east of England, was always firmly rooted in the London media landscape. However, its recent announcement that its new HQ will be in Leeds with two new regional creative hubs in Bristol and Glasgow, indicate the channel’s commitment to fulfilling its 4 All the UK strategy. But the case of the BBC is more complicated.

The establishment of S4C in Wales in 1982 – initially a non-BBC service, but one which the Corporation is now obliged to finance – was followed in 2008 by the creation of BBC Alba, a Gaelic language service similar in scope and ambition, if not so well funded. And now there is a new BBC Scotland channel.

Its origins are worth exploring. In 1998 BBC Scotland planned to use the 6-7pm slot on BBC1 for an opt-out news programme covering Scottish, UK and international news along the lines of its successful radio programme Good Morning Scotland, which goes out at the same time as Radio 4’s Today programme.

The plan was enthusiastically supported north of the border but was derailed by the then director-general John Birt with the support of leading Labour politicians, ostensibly on the grounds that the BBC would be getting ahead of constitutional change. Some of those involved seemed to believe such a programme would precipitate Scottish independence, eccentric as that view might seem.

When the first SNP government was elected at Holyrood it set up a broadcasting commission which in 2008 recommended the establishment of a new non-BBC channel budgeted at between £50m and £75m per year. All the political parties supported the idea but the Scottish parliament offered no money towards the cost and the proposal withered on the vine.

Dissatisfaction with the status quo continued, and much ire was directed at the BBC on the grounds that it spent far less of the licence fee raised north of the border in Scotland than it should. In response, the current director-general, Tony Hall, announced in 2017 that the Corporation would launch a new channel with an annual budget of £32m:

We know that viewers in Scotland love BBC television, but we also know that they want us to better reflect their lives and better reflect modern Scotland… The best way of achieving that is a dedicated channel for Scotland. It’s a channel that will be bold, creative and ambitious, with a brand-new Scotland-edited international news programme at its heart.

So how is it doing?

The new channel has been generally welcomed and not merely by independent production companies ever hungry for work. But there has been continuing concern about resources. As to the likely audience size, both Ofcom (the telecoms regulator) and BBC Scotland itself have indicated that a share of around 2% of the Scottish TV audience would be acceptable. Even allowing for the range of channels and online subscription services now available, and mindful of young people’s reluctance to watch television in the same way their parents did, this seems a very modest ambition.

So what is the verdict on the first week? It’s not a surprise to see what might be called softer, (and cheaper) documentaries – an Asian wedding, Scottish punk rock and aspiring young dancers. However, the impressive old-school documentary Nae Pasaran, about the refusal of Scots Rolls Royce workers to service jet engines for the Chilean Pinochet dictatorship in 1974, shone on opening night.

Some of this kind of programming, interesting as it is, may well be over extended in order to fill the schedule and meet the Ofcom quota of 75% “original material” in peak time. There was also some (tried and tested) comedy, but there will not be much drama – the costliest form of television – and reshowing a much-loved classic such as John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti, may only serve to emphasise that fact.

The nightly news programme, The Nine, has played to mixed reviews and does have the look and feel of a breakfast show. However after a first edition which scarcely mentioned the world beyond Scotland, things have improved, with more foreign reports from recently hired journalists and existing BBC staffers. But there hasn’t been too much UK news – Brexit apart – never mind news from the other constituent parts of the UK, including England.

But 9pm is a difficult slot, given the offerings from the other main channels and although that could be an advantage with breaking stories, 10pm is probably the better slot – and perhaps that is where the programme may end up, despite the obvious competition. But an hour is a very long stretch to fill – much better to have a shorter 30-minute bulletin, followed by a current affairs magazine.

There are plenty of BBC critics who have been hostile to the Corporation ever since the 2014 independence referendum, in which, they believed, the BBC’s news coverage was biased against home rule. Such people are deeply unsympathetic to the new channel. For many others however, it is a worthwhile development, if only stage one of what may be a long but necessary journey.