Exploring the future of a new Scottish TV network

By Jamie McIvor
BBC Scotland news

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Image caption,
A new network could be funded by the TV licence, direct public funding and commercial funding

Former BBC Director General Greg Dyke will share his thoughts on the future of Scottish broadcasting at a conference in Glasgow later.

Mr Dyke, who resigned from the BBC in 2004, will be the keynote speaker at the event which will look at ways of taking forward proposals for a dedicated Scottish channel and local news channels across the country.

Two years ago, a commission established by the Scottish government argued for a public service Scottish Digital Network, which could cost £75m a year to run.

The Scottish government is keen to see the network established but has signalled it may not be able to provide public money to meet the whole cost.

The possible sources - TV licence money, direct public funding and commercial funding - have various pros and cons.

Most people would say they wanted "more" or "better" Scottish broadcasting but, this may mean different things to different people. And, crucially, how could it be paid for?

Historically, the SNP wanted to separate BBC Scotland from the rest of the BBC and turn it into the self-standing Scottish Broadcasting Corporation. Quite apart from concerns about the quality or quantity of Scottish broadcasting, some nationalists regard the BBC as an institution of the British state.

One of Alex Salmond's first acts as first minister was to ask former BBC Scotland executive Blair Jenkins to lead an all-party commission to look at possible ways forward.

TV licence freeze

Mr Jenkins' report argued that, on the whole, Scotland benefited from being part of the UK broadcasting system but that there were important and legitimate concerns to be addressed.

Image caption,
Jeremy Vine in a London studio during the general election in May

The commission's proposal, for a stand-alone Scottish public service channel to complement the existing services and provide competition for BBC Scotland, won broad support across the political spectrum and across the broadcasting industry.

The conference in Glasgow on Tuesday will look at how to take the proposal forward and how it should be paid for. And money is the big challenge.

Realistically, neither TV Licence money nor government funding seem practical options for meeting the entire cost of the £75m-a-year project.

The BBC and the UK government recently agreed to freeze the TV Licence until 2016. As part of this deal, the BBC will also fund the BBC World Service and the Welsh language broadcaster S4C - both currently funded by the UK government.

This deal leaves the BBC with a financial challenge. While the BBC might think competition and extra choice for viewers is good, it would be likely to fiercely resist attempts to divert more TV Licence money.

In theory, the Scottish government could pay for the Scottish Digital Network, but it too is facing tough financial decisions over the next few years.

This leaves private sector funding - in other words advertising and sponsorship - as the other possible source of income. But could this be used to create and maintain the sort of Scottish Digital Network its supporters want?

Win ratings

As every commercial broadcaster knows, programmes which may be of public value can be difficult to fund commercially.

More importantly, a commercially-funded Scottish Digital Network would need to compete with other channels for advertising. If the SDN needed to win ratings to secure advertising, would it meet the public service objectives its supporters want?

The UK government is keen to establish privately-funded local news channels across the country but these are likely to be relatively "cheap and cheerful" affairs - not patrons of in-depth documentaries, drama and the arts nor the other genres which the SDN would be expected to support.

Supporters of an SDN argue that having one completely Scottish channel among the hundreds now available hardly seems unreasonable.

Whether public funding is a practical option in the current financial climate is another matter. But a commercially-funded SDN at the whim of market forces may be very different in character to the station supporters want to see.

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