11 May 2019
Photograph: Jacob Nicol
We follow up on how the new channel has been performing since its launch in February
A few months ago, we covered the launch of the new BBC Scotland channel, interviewing some of the BBC Scotland staff who were at the helm of this new project. We talked to channel manager Tony Nellany, who spoke about how he hoped that the channel would reflect modern Scotland and reach a broad audience. We caught up with him to get his views on whether the channel is succeeding in its aims.
“I think the channel has broadly been really well-received,” said Nellany. “Our figures have been really healthy, and in some cases, far better than what we could have hoped for. We all hear anecdotally from our friends and family about what they think, and quite often they’re the harshest critics, and there’s been a lot of positive buzz whenever the channel’s been mentioned. Also, the press coverage has been really positive broadly.”
Gerry Gay, deputy editor for The Nine, also believes that the news show has gone down well with viewers. He said: “We can only go on hard evidence of things like media reviews, audience logs (the BBC system where viewers can register their thoughts on a programme), face-to-face discussions and such like. On that evidence, appreciation of the show, among those watching, appears to be high. Almost all of our feedback is positive from both the political class and the actual audience.”
However, recently there has been some criticism of the channel’s low viewing figures. In April, viewing figures for The Nine ranged from a high of 37,000 on 4 April to 8,980 on 8 April.
Neil Blain, Professor Emeritus of communications at Stirling University, believes that it is still too soon to assess what viewers think of the new channel.
Blain said: “It’s going to take much longer than two or three months even to start to assess its audience potential. The most recent viewing figures are not encouraging but the channel has to be seen as a long-term prospect. BBC Alba apart, this is the first Scottish TV channel with evening programming not based around network output with some Scottish opt-outs.”
Nellany argues that viewing figures alone do not fully demonstrate the full reach of the service. “I think viewing figures are quite a crude measurement,” he said. “You’re only sampling the population, so you’re not getting the exact figure. The benefit of iPlayer is that we get exact numbers. But the figures that we’ve got and the samples we’ve had, we’re pleased with.”
One of the aims of the new channel was to reach as broad an audience as possible across Scotland and serve all of the country. Nellany believes that the channel has attracted a wide range of Scottish viewers of different ages, region and socio-economic status. While acknowledging the fact that attracting younger audiences is always a challenge, he argued that figures taken from iPlayer suggest that they are reaching this demographic.
“I think any broadcaster who tells you it’s not difficult to attract younger audiences is telling you a fib,” Nellany said. “What’s important for us is that it’s not just what you see on your television screen each night, it’s also about what is happening on the iPlayer. And we don’t see it as just one or the other, it’s one service together. There are some titles where the performance amongst a younger demographic on our linear service is smaller, but it transfers to iPlayer and it’s much bigger.”
Infographic: Jacob Nicol
Blain believes that BBC Scotland always had a tough challenge, due to the fact they were given a tight budget to work with.
“Launching any new TV initiative in the present multi-channel and multi-platform environment would be a big challenge,” he said. “Doing so on such a small budget was going to be borderline possible at best. A budget at least two and a half times larger might just be adequate. Larger budgets enable good channel branding through a critical mass of attractive programmes. That’s a big ask on just over £30 million.”
Nevertheless, Nellany is determined that the channel will be around for a long time to come. He said: “What we have to do is keep reacting to the audience. Audience’s tastes don’t stay the same and they evolve all the time. What is really important is that the commissioning team here at BBC Scotland keep track of that with our team’s audience research.”
He added: “If we see dips at different parts, or we see some of the demographic not performing as well as we would like it to, we’ll adapt and do more content for that target and that group. Over time we imagine digital will continue to grow and we’ll figure out the balance of where we focus our marketing efforts as well.”
Blain also highlighted the difficulty that the channel has in building a loyal and regular audience. “The new channel has a large focus on news, which means trying to build real time viewing at 9.00 in the evening. That’s a very crowded slot. There are good reasons for trying to address the deficiencies in decent journalism in Scotland and the new channel is making an effort here but building a 9pm audience in real time is very difficult.”
However, Gay believes that The Nine will succeed in building this audience over time. He said: “We’re doing plenty of our own journalism, and we are providing intelligent reportage and analysis of Scottish, UK and international affairs. It will take time and hard work to grow the very big audience the show deserves. I have every confidence that if we keep producing top class journalistic programmes on a nightly basis, we will do just that.”
Nellany said: “We would love the channel to be even more findable, and for people to remember the numbers, so we are going to come up with more ways to do that. Our job over the next few months is to create habits and to find content that audiences come in for again and again. View from the Terrace, for example, has been very good for that. Sport, in general, is really good for that.
“We want to bring people in and get them to stay and sample the other bits and pieces of the content. That’s where we’re sort of focused now, how do we keep bringing the audience, keep getting them used to pressing those buttons on the remote control, and help them to build a habit based on content that they love.”
While acknowledging that the channel is valuable “in existing at all”, Blain believes that BBC Scotland should focus on improving their news website, as well as building an identity for the channel.
He said: “It makes no sense to give news such a budgetary priority in the new channel while failing to resource a serious autonomous Scottish news website. Despite the struggle for resources at BBC Scotland, the news website has to be more competitive and, frankly, much less trivial. And this can only work adequately if the BBC rethinks its own internal website links, which at present generally privilege the London landing page.
“In other areas of programming the best thing meanwhile is to try to attract attention and build channel identity. Maybe the new channel and BBC Scotland generally could work more strategically with BBC Alba to mutual benefit. We’ll know better in a year or so how to judge this channel, also because of events well beyond broadcasting.”
Viewers may still be making up their minds, but it’s clear that BBC Scotland is determined to win them over. Time will tell.