IT was billed as the "cheeky and fun" replacement for Newsnight Scotland that would also ask the tough questions ahead of the independence referendum.

But BBC Scotland has already been forced to defend its new flagship current affairs programme, Scotland 2014, after viewers deserted it in droves within days of its launch.

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Figures obtained by The Herald show that on Tuesday night's inaugural edition of the show, presented by former Channel 4 News correspondent Sarah Smith and featuring an interview with Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander, 89,000 viewers - or eight per cent of the Scottish audience - tuned in.

Following negative comments on social media, just 53,000 watched the show on Wednesday; by Thursday, only 22,000 viewers - two per cent - remained.

Pete Wishart, the SNP's MP for Perth and North Perthshire, was among those to declare his disappointment with the format. "Sorry #Scotland2014 it's rubbish so far" he wrote on Twitter following Wednesday's episode. "You're not going to beat #scotnight with this. It's in-between too many different approaches."

However, a spokesman for BBC Scotland insisted that the corporation, which is investing £5 million for referendum-related content, was "delighted" with how the first week had gone.

"We are committed to making Scotland 2014's mix of news, investigations and analysis a key part of our coverage ahead of the referendum," he said. "The first programme featured an important investigation into security firm G4S and an agenda-setting interview with Danny Alexander and, throughout the week, Scotland 2014 covered a broad range of issues and stories."

The spokesman added: "The initial audience figures indicate the programme performing above the genre average for that slot on BBC2, although it is not unusual for audience figures to fluctuate. As with all of our content, we monitor consolidated viewing figures and audience reaction over a sustained period."

Viewing figures reveal that STV's rival late-night current affairs show, Scotland Tonight, maintained a comfortable lead over Scotland 2014.

The data seen by The Herald shows that 166,000 watched the programme on Tuesday, falling to 107,000 on Wednesday and 89,000 on Thursday.

An STV spokeswoman said: "Scotland Tonight has firmly established itself as the No.1 Scottish current affairs programme. The continued strength of our viewing figures and audience share indicate that our viewers recognise we are successfully providing a platform for all the big topics in Scotland and we remain committed to playing our role in the debate as we approach the referendum."