New BBC Scotland channel has potential, but needs more viewers

New BBC Scotland channel has potential, but needs more viewers

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 1, March, 2019

WHEN THE NEW BBC Scotland digital TV channel was first proposed, it faced criticism in different quarters. Some hard-line unionists were suspicious that the new channel would become an outlet for Scottish Government propaganda, having been created in response to nationalist complaints about “BBC bias” during the 2014 independence referendum. On the other side, some nationalists were critical of what they saw as a low-budget venture, which represented the abandonment of the vision of a nightly “Scottish Six” news programme. 

This week, we all had the opportunity to make up our minds, with the launch on Sunday of the new venture. This features a nightly news programme – the “Nine” – together with a mix of other output, some newly commissioned, and some repeats of previously seen items.

From what I have seen of the Nine so far it strikes me as a fresh, interesting approach to delivering the nightly news from a Scottish perspective, with some detailed, in-depth reports on subjects that wouldn’t otherwise get coverage. It is clear that there has been significant investment in quality journalism that is showing good results.

But the Nine will only be a success in the long run if it can attract an audience, and while we are still very much in the early days the news on that front has not been so encouraging. At one point on Tuesday evening viewing figures fell to not much more than 4,000, which represents a miniscule share of the total market. My concern is that, however good the quality of the output is on the Nine, up against the peak slot in the evening for drama, it will always struggle to attract viewers.

This week also saw the launch of the new channel’s version of Question Time, “Debate Night”, broadcast at 10.45 pm on Wednesday evening. I had the privilege of taking part as a panellist in the very first edition, along with John Swinney, Monica Lennon, Sir Tom Hunter, and Jenny Lindsay.

My initial impression is that the format worked well. The network BBC Question Time has, to me, become virtually unwatchable, with panellists resorting to soundbites and an aggressive, shouty, and very partisan audience. Although not without its faults, Debate Night tried to encourage a more considered level of debate, and Stephen Jardine proved himself to be a capable and confident presenter.

Question Time in the past has been criticised for its audience selection, and the producers of Debate Night are determined its studio audience will fairly represent wider Scottish society. Whether that can be achieved with the need for 100 audience members every single week remains to be seen. There is always a danger in programmes of this nature that those with passionate political opinions are over-represented and end up dominating the conversation.

We will find out in due course what the viewing figures were for the first Debate Night. I know it was watched avidly at Holyrood, but I wonder how wide its reach was beyond that limited audience. A 10.45 pm slot on a weeknight might just prove too much of a challenge, and perhaps an earlier evening slot needs to be found.

Overall, the new digital channel has to be a good thing, in my view. It has created hundreds of new jobs in the creative industries in Scotland, it is promoting quality journalism, and it is ensuring a greater focus on Scottish interests. Ultimately, its success or failure will depend on whether there is a market amongst the Scottish population for this sort of output, when there is so much competition elsewhere.

If the programmers are looking for ideas, one thing I would like to see more of are factual programmes on Scotland – particularly neglected areas of Scottish history. So if anyone is interested in commissioning a series on the Scottish Revolution and Covenanter Wars of the 17th Century, I know just the man to help.

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