A new era for Scottish television?

21 February 2019

Photograph: Pixabay

In the centre of the BBC’s Glasgow headquarters, the stage is set. Every weekday, many meetings take place in preparation for the latest edition of the new BBC Scotland channel’s flagship news show. The Nine is filmed on the third floor of the open-plan Pacific Quay building, with the production team working intensely right up to 9pm. Then they broadcast live to a national audience of zero.

The Nine production team have been filming their pilot shows for several weeks now, in the lead up to the launch of the BBC Scotland channel. Every aspect of a pilot show is treated as if it is a live show, despite the fact it is not being broadcast any further than the corporation’s cafeteria. Gerry Gay, deputy editor of The Nine, explained: “We’re doing this full-time right until we do launch, so when we do launch, we think we’ll just be ready to go.”

From my conversations with Gay and Tony Nellany, channel manager of BBC Scotland, it is clear that much time, thought and consideration has gone into creating The Nine and the new BBC Scotland channel. However, their creation is only the first of many challenges for BBC Scotland. When the channel does launch at 7pm on Sunday 24 February, there will be the no small feat of having to deliver more than 900 hours of new and original television content every year.

Why is the channel coming into existence now? The BBC’s recent £40 million a year investment in Scotland explains how such a large venture can be financed, but that’s only one part of the story. When the BBC renewed its charter back in 2016, it took a moment to reflect and plan ahead for the next decade. If it was to remain relevant in this new age of television streaming, the broadcaster knew it had to adapt and evolve.

“I try not to use the word ‘channel’ too much and talk about a ‘service’,” Nellany says. “It’s a service that will exist, yes, on linear television, so it will exist in the usual way, but digital’s just as important. The iPlayer is a huge part of what we are doing, and the channel will be available on iPlayer and we know that is where a big part of our audience will come from.”

The BBC’s vision for the channel is to reflect modern Scotland. To achieve this, the broadcaster is making greater efforts towards developing a much closer relationship with its audience. During the creation of the channel, there was greater focus placed on engaging directly with communities in Scotland, in an effort to persuade Scottish audiences that the BBC remains both for – and of – them.

To achieve this closer relationship, BBC Scotland has taken a different approach in recruiting for the new channel. For The Nine, six open days were held across Scotland, to provide more information about the show and highlight that applications were open to people of all backgrounds. The BBC also worked with the charity Boost Employability to provide six months of training to those who would not have thought a career in the media was a viable possibility.

Alongside the pursuit for greater diversity, there is also a business incentive in developing a closer relationship with Scottish audiences. Nellany explained: “We want to be even closer in a way that a world of global streaming services can’t. Can Netflix and all the other platforms be as close to Scotland as we can? Can they reflect that audience as well as we can? When we see things that are familiar, we engage in a different way, so that’s a space that BBC can absolutely fill and do brilliantly.”

A new channel also provides BBC Scotland with a platform to commission new and more ambitious television shows. There appears to be a real desire to offer Scottish audiences a much broader range of television content than ever before. New drama, gameshows and popular factual pieces are all lined up, as well as a strand of shows designed to showcase people who are starting out in the television industry. With all these extra hours of content, BBC Scotland wants to make sure some of them are used to give exposure to new talent.

BBC Scotland is also experimenting with the duration of its new content on the channel. The late-night schedule from 11pm to midnight will broadcast short-form content, which will be skewed towards younger audiences. This is part of the BBC’s attempts to adapt to the way their audiences increasingly consume visual content in shorter chunks, especially right before bed.

Nellany and Gay are passionate about bringing bold and creative new content to Scottish audiences. Great emphasis has been placed on producing original content, with The Nine intent on reporting an original news story in every edition of the show. The channel itself will aim to be distinctively Scottish in how it tells its stories and attempt to showcase Scotland’s place in the UK and the world through Scottish eyes.

It was clear from my conversations that BBC Scotland are committed to delivering the best possible television for Scottish audiences. It will likely take a bit of time for the channel to find its own voice, and we will have to wait and see whether the they can deliver on the very ambitious goals that they have set for themselves with this channel. But I will definitely be tuning to find out.

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