IT’S three months today since BBC Scotland launched with a special performance of Miracle by Glasgow band Chvrches and an evening of entertainment which included a variety show, a documentary about Asian weddings, the first glimpse of freshly-minted news programme The Nine, an episode of comedy favourite Still Game (watched by 1.3 million people) and a screening of Nae Pasaran, a documentary about a politically inspired-strike in 1970s East Kilbride.

It’s a period in which the £32 million channel dedicated to Scotland and Scottish content has, at times, attracted record digital audiences, won a quarter share of Scottish viewers, been the third most-watched channel in Scotland after BBC One and STV, reached more people between the ages of 16 and 34 than any other channel in Scotland, gained serious traction on social media and, in the best of its content, made good on its promise to give Scottish audiences programmes they won’t see anywhere else and which deal with the issues and subjects that affect, concern and interest them (as well as a few that don’t at first glance look like they would, such as a documentary about stone-skimming).

But it’s also a period marked by a wild variance in audience ratings (some are scarily low), by whispered rumours of discontent and in-fighting, by a perceived lack of brand identity and by a barrage of negative headlines either questioning the need to have the channel in the first place or pouring scorn on specific programmes, such as The Nine or Catriona Shearer-fronted gameshow Wonderball.

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Launching BBC Scotland in Glasgow in February, BBC Director-General Tony Hall outlined the aims of the channel. As he saw it, they were to celebrate Scotland’s strengths in arts, comedy, science and “thought”. To reflect the country’s diversity. To allow audiences “to interrogate the things that matter to them” and, along the way, to “reinvent” public service broadcasting. BBC Scotland, he stressed, would offer space for discussion and debate alongside opportunities to “kick back and have fun”. It would be about the country speaking to itself but also to the world. It would be local, national and global.

In other words it would be a lot of things to a lot of people. Or it would try to be. So, three months after its glitzy birth and with the numbers soon to roll over to Day 100 of its existence, how is BBC Scotland bedding in? What do audiences think of it? And how well is it measuring up to Hall’s lofty claims?

Steve Carson, BBC Scotland’s Head of Multi-Platform Commissioning, is predictably bullish about its prospects and its track record. To his mind the station is about trying to take risks, giving a platform to “a strong range of voices and communities” and doing “new things and different things”. So far the strike rate is good, he thinks. Among the successes he points to are Getting Hitched Asian Style, a documentary series following a wedding planning company in Glasgow, the opening night screening of Nae Pasaran (which BBC Scotland part-funded), and Last Breath, a drama documentary about a North Sea diver stranded on the sea-bed.

Identifying a stand-out is “like naming your favourite child,” he says. “But I think Asian Weddings is something I was pleased to see … It was quite straightforward but it got into communities you don’t often see and certainly don’t often see in that sort of context”.

For an example of risk-taking that paid off he points to Sink Or Skim, which took a fond look at the World Stone Skimming Championship held annually on the isle of Easdale in the Firth of Lorn.

“That’s not a subject many channels would have commissioned, but it was a beautifully made piece and it was funny watching it go out and looking at social media because people were going ‘I can’t believe they’re doing something about stone skimming. Is this part of their sport portfolio?’. But by the end of it the same people were going ‘That was really good’.”

Sink Or Skim was a one-off but The People’s News is a weekly discussion of topical events in which ordinary Scots go in front of the camera and have their tuppence-worth on topical events. Those featured might not have the political contacts of a Laura Kuenssberg, say, but they have something just as important: context. They represent the social and political views of people in a spread of communities distant from London and far removed from the Central Belt. It’s another example of the channel’s guiding principle that BBC Scotland should be a platform for discussion and debate and again it’s a programme that wouldn’t have aired anywhere else.

“We could have done a different version of this channel which would have been a lot less risky and done a lot more of what other channels do,” says Carson. “A Scottish version of BBC Four, for example, would have been a less risky proposition. But we already have that, so we felt it was important to try new things, go for harder to reach audiences and deliberately take risks knowing that not all of them – in fact many of them – won’t pay off. That's what we’re about.”

So which risks haven’t paid off?

“That’s like naming your least favourite child,” he says. “I think the programmes that we have originated between 7pm and 8pm have had a tough time, but again our medium term strategy was not to originate as much there. The Nine has had ratings which have gone up and down, but we’ve always said that’s a competitive slot. But on a digital channel – and we’re already the biggest non-terrestrial channel in Scotland with a three per cent share, which is well ahead of projections – audiences will go up and down across the night and the week.”

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If there’s a lightning rod for criticism, The Nine is it. An hour in length, staffed by a team of presenters and journalists that numbers 15 – at least in the publicity shots – and fronted by Rebecca Curran and award-winning former ITN journalist Martin Geissler, it’s the station’s flagship news programme.

A lot rides on its wellbeing and it seems a little peaky. It was reported that on one day in late April viewing figures dropped to just 4000. They picked up the following day, to 7000, but even on April 8, the first day of the inquiry into the Clutha disaster, they couldn’t quite hit 9000. From a first night high of 63,000, that’s a significant drop.

“The Nine’s average is significantly higher than that figure and its reach, which is really important in news, is reaching a quarter of a million a week,” Carson counters. “It’s offering something different. If you wanted to point at a show which is something we wouldn’t have otherwise done, The Nine is it – an hour long news and analysis programme which looks at Scotland, the UK and the world through Scottish eyes.”

So is it simply the right show but in the wrong time slot?

“We’ll see. Nine o’clock is a competitive slot but there is a demand there and people are turning to it. The appreciation for The Nine is very strong and we’re finding that across the board. You might get some programmes that don’t have huge average audiences but the appreciation is strong”.

In a front page story earlier this month, London-based broadsheet the Sunday Times quoted a BBC source who called The Nine “a turkey”. The same source added: “You can’t have a channel that nobody watches. Journalists like their output to be watched and it won’t be long until some of the channel’s main talent head for the door”. Another source spoke of a “poisonous atmosphere in the newsroom” causing behind-the-scenes tensions which could cause key staff to walk. True or false? “That is not the case,” Carson says bluntly.

Among the keenest watchers of how BBC Scotland has fared over these first three months is Dr Lisa Kelly, a lecturer in television at Glasgow University.

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” she says. “I think I probably wasn’t holding out much hope at the beginning, primarily due to the budget – £32 million for programming isn’t much to play with in the television landscape.”

To put the budget in context, the BBC is spending nearly three times that amount on the new EastEnders set. But funding aside, Kelly is excited by the apparent focus on nurturing and showcasing new talent. She’s also impressed by the choice of programmes and pleasantly surprised at the internationalism of its outlook. One innovation she particularly welcomes is the Next Big Thing strand, which screens short films such as as Meet Me By The Water by Scots-Asian writer-director Raisah Ahmed.

“I think there’s been quite a range of programming. It seems like they are trying to be diverse in terms of their representation. So obviously you have Getting Hitched Asian Style and The Nine, which is trying to tackle current debates around issues of representation. So I think it has been quite successful so far.”

And does it matter if ratings are low for some programmes?

“I don’t know that it does this early on. I think it’s important that we have access to original Scottish programming at a local and national level”.

There are other challenges, she thinks, besides ratings. One is establishing the channel’s identity. “I’m not quite sure what its brand is yet in terms of how it’s selling itself. I noticed that before the launch it was targeting young people with this notion of fresh and original ideas, but I don’t know whether they’ll be able to sustain that.”

Another is proving that the bold talk – of nurturing young talent, giving voice to different groups and communities, taking risks and tackling diversity – will be backed by bold actions.

Where’s the Scottish Phoebe Waller-Bridge, for example? And how embedded is the commitment to diversity and inclusion, to actually hearing new voices and seeing different stories rather than it just being rhetoric with no change?”

They’re questions for which Steve Carson has a ready answer. So if the Scottish Phoebe Waller-Bridge was out there with a project she was aching to make, is he convinced he would find her and commission it?

“I hope so. And I think we are finding quite extraordinary talent at all levels and also stretching people who might already have done one thing but are now doing something else. Like State Of It, which is Robert Florence [co-writer of sketch show Burnistoun] doing quite a scabrous satirical show. It’ll be coming out in the autumn.”

As for brand identity, he sees the channel’s “organising principle” as being a focus on contemporary Scotland. “It’s on now and it’s about now,” is his neatly-turned description. Pithy or meaningless? You decide.

There is data which can help, however. A measuring system known as “social listening” can analyse social media responses to any subject and from that gain an insight into how that subject is viewed, expressed as the over-riding emotion associated with it.

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BBC Scotland set the algorithms running at launch and four weeks later the results came back. “The strongest emotion in social listening was surprise,” says Carson. “That was really encouraging. So modern Scotland, outward looking, surprising and focussed on new talent – that’s the core identity of the channel”. So if BBC Scotland is a keyboard emoji, it’s a colon and a zero.

Three months ago, the channel launched with a Miracle. Whether it’ll need another one to make it sing in the long term is harder to judge. As they probably don’t teach you to say in continuity announcer school, watch this space.

BBC Scotland: The Good, The Bad And The Nine

Getting Hitched Asian Style

A behind-the-scenes documentary following Glasgow wedding planners Saffron Events as they prepare for a succession of glamorous weddings, Getting Hitched Asian Style proved so successful that it received a repeat run on BBC One and has been re-commissioned for a second series on BBC Scotland. Produced by the Scottish division of London-based Firecracker Films it’s a good example of the channel’s stated commitment to programmes which reflect Scotland’s diversity. Verdict: funny, interesting, occasionally jaw-dropping but ultimately humane.

A View From The Terrace

Born out of The Terrace, a long-running podcast, AVFTT is fronted by four young presenters (or “hipsters in throwaway Matalan” to quote one waggish commentator) who sit on sofas and talk engagingly about Scottish football. Refreshingly free of Old Firm bias it’s fast becoming a Friday night staple for those fans of the Beautiful Game who think subjects such as the on- and off-field shenanigans of Partick Thistle legend Chic Charnley or how Eriskay has one of the best pitches in the world are as worthy of discussion as who’ll be the next manager of Real Madrid. Verdict: a great signing.

Sanjeev Kohli’s Big Talk

A weekly show in which the comedian is joined by a panel of guests for a “sideways look” at the big issues of the week, filmed in what looks like the foyer of the BBC’s Pacific Quay HQ in Glasgow in front of what looks like a smattering of audience members. “I never in my life want to endure another excruciatingly mirthless hour of supposedly witty commentary on the week’s news,” wrote one Herald critic. “It was so awful the only way to hang on to consciousness was to watch what was happening outside the glass-fronted studio.” Less trenchant criticism has concentrated on the show’s stiffness and its uneven format. Verdict: could do better.


It’s probably destined for cult status among Generation Z-ers as an endless source of memes, but in the here and now BBC Scotland’s flagship gameshow hasn’t been exactly showered with love. Let’s not take it too far, though: Wonderball is not, as right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail has suggested, the worst show of its type ever aired, even if that paper might like it to be. But you can’t say that those who have pointed out its flaws – the somewhat complicated rules, say, or the unintentional snigger value of two young men being instructed to play with the blue balls – don’t have a case. It hasn’t been a ratings hit either, with viewership dropping as low as 2760 for one episode. Verdict: not utterly pointless, but not likely to become the next Pointless.

The Nine

A team of talented and accomplished presenters, a 60 minute running time and a news agenda that blends hard-hitting investigations with quirky or thought-provoking items hasn’t stopped BBC Scotland’s flagship news programme taking considerable flak from some quarters. Earlier this month one newspaper talked of a “talent exodus” from the channel and quoted a BBC insider who called The Nine “a turkey”. Damage has undoubtedly been done as a result: negative news stories about behind-the-scenes tensions and potential resignations may not be true, but they contribute to a narrative of failure which becomes hard to shake over time. What is true is that ratings for The Nine have been disappointing on occasions, though in mitigation its time slot doesn’t help. Verdict: a rocky start for a potentially stellar offering that may flourish in a different time slot.