It’s been a long time coming, but BBC Scotland is finally set to get a new channel on its airwaves by the end of the year.
Announced last year, the channel is expected to have a budget of £32 mil, and will create 80 new jobs for journalists.
In anticipation of its launch later this year, The Glasgow Guardian spoke to Ian Small, Head of Public Policy at BBC Scotland and former Glasgow University graduate (class of ’78), about the BBC’s plans for the new channel.
Glasgow Guardian (GG): When did the BBC begin discussing in earnest its plans for a new BBC Scotland channel?
Ian Small: The initial conversations about the need for better investment in Scotland have in fact been going on for a long time, but they started to focus themselves during our consideration around a new charter in January 2017 – it was the right time to do it, we think.
GG: Aside from the proposed 9pm Scottish news programme, what other plans are there for the content of the channel?
Small: We want [to produce] observational documentaries that tell us something about Scotland that’s not already been said. We want to hear voices and perspectives from groups who traditionally do not interact with broadcast television.
We’ll be on air, we hope, between 7pm to 12pm every night. I think that the later space, 11 o’clock to 12 o’clock, allows us a territory to do things that are a little different, a bit edgier to what you would normally expect from the BBC. I think there’s space for us to be quite innovative.
GG: How many of the decisions about this new channel are happening at the BBC headquarters in London?
Small: Virtually nothing is happening in London. We’re working very closely with colleagues in London, but the Scottish team is driving it.
GG: Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator, has raised concerns about the risk that the new channel could crowd out the existing local news market. How has the BBC responded?
Small: I think that’s very valid. I mean, we would not do this if we did not think it would have an impact on the market. Of course we want it to have an impact, that’s why we’re doing it. But we think the impact will be much more positive than it will be potentially negative relative to other broadcasters. The public value of this, the democratic value, the social value, the cultural value of this channel will far outweigh any potential impact it may have by drawing audiences from other broadcasters.
GG: Ofcom has also raised concerns that the channel’s proposed budget (£32m per year) may be too small. Do you consider this a valid concern?
Small: We’ve got concerns about the budget. It’s not a big budget. It’s around about the budget of BBC 4, but that’s got a slightly different operating model. But I think we can be clever – I think we can look for new ways of doing things. Technology allows an awful lot more flexibility for broadcast content than was ever the case before, and we’re talking about technology that is literally off the retailer shelf.
I keep saying, don’t look at the budget that’s on the spreadsheet. Because the budget of the channel, and the value of the channel, those could be two quite different things.
GG: Donlda MacKinnon, BBC Scotland’s director, has said that the channel is going to “lean more young.” Can you elaborate on what that means?
Small: Our audiences naturally skew older. The difficult age group for us is possibly ages 16 to 30. That’s the age group where we’ve got to ask what content will be meaningful and relevant to that group.
GG: So what is BBC Scotland’s initial answer to that question?
Small: I think what we’ve got to do is try to work out what are the things that interest [young people]. It could be music, it could be discussion programmes about particular topics, about things that are happening that particularly impact you at that age – be that about the club scene or buying your first house or your first job. It’s a question of working out what’s not being said at the moment and how best to say it.
The demographic to whom we are trying to reach out should be reached out to by its own demographic. It should be people you can identify with. So part of what we’re doing is going out and actually recruiting among that particular constituency and letting them provide the content.
GG: Are you optimistic that the channel will be on air by the end of the year?
Small: I wouldn’t put a date on it. I think the key thing for us is to get it right rather than to say it has to launch [on a particular date]. I suspect it will be later into November or December of this year. But I would much rather be two months late and produce something of real quality than be two months early and get something out that’s humdrum.