Bobby Hain: His Speech to the Royal Television Society

You've read the news report and listened to the interview, now peruse the speech. On Wednesday evening, Bobby Hain – the director of broadcast services and regulatory affairs at STV – spoke about the broadcaster's recent strategy of increasingly opting out of the ITV network. He was taking part in an event organised by the Scottish division of the Royal Television Society.

Read and then feel free to comment.

“Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to address tonight’s meeting of the RTS.

“Television is never far from people’s thoughts – close to the hearts of everyone here, but you don’t have to be a practitioner to get a sense that something’s happening. You can hardly pick up a newspaper without a TV story of some description – in the entertainment pages, what’s happening in the jungle or who’s voted off the X Factor; in the business pages, the challenges brought on by a digital future, new platforms, collaborations, ways of viewing content; and in the news pages, a blow by blow account of what STV is up to.

“STV is not like other commercial companies. Television is something that people feel they have a right to; something they can get personally involved with; and something that provokes strong responses. People are very passionate about TV. But the fact remains that STV has to be accountable both to our viewers and our shareholders.

“Recently, we’ve become a hot topic…in the newspapers, on the radio, even on TV as the media loves nothing better than to talk about itself. In fact, a few weeks ago I was talking about our programme strategy on Newsnight. October 22 to be exact, the reason I remember this is it was biggest audience for current affairs in decades. To be fair, the 'lion’s share' of that was watching Nick Griffin appear on Question Time… But on BBC2, the first question I was asked sums up what a lot of people were thinking: Is STV too Scottish? There is a certain irony of being asked this question by the Scottish presenter of Newsnight Scotland on the Scottish opt out on BBC 2 Scotland but it is a useful scene setter for tonight’s event.

“Tonight, I’m going to take you through the STV programme strategy, the background to the decisions we’ve been making about what’s on the channel and laying out our vision going forward.

“I’ve been at STV for 10 years and managed the licences since 2003 and in the last two years the business has completely transformed. We have a new board, chairman, chief executive and management team. The business is focused clearly on Scotland and alongside our television offering we have launched an online service, The website has grown from virtually no traffic to over a million unique users a month in less than two years. It’s a core part of our clear vision to be Scotland’s media brand of choice, committed to the ITV Network but also injecting a significant amount of Scottish content.

“The business was at a crossroads. Down one road, writing a cheque for £50 million pounds every year to ITV for all the network shows. Despite that investment, no say in what gets commissioned, no influence on strategy. ITV1 Scotland. Simple. But then, look at what’s happened in the other regions where that’s been the case. The once proud names like Granada, Tyne Tees, Yorkshire have long since disappeared and now, apart from news, not a single regional programme is made in those regions. Not a model for Scotland and not one that STV can contemplate. 

Instead, we’ve gone down a different road, using our contractual right under the devolution agreement to opt out of some network programmes and invest more in content produced in Scotland. The objective is to produce a relevant and affordable schedule with a mix of network programmes, home-produced material and acquired content.

“Our decisions to opt out of certain network programmes are not taken lightly. Some network programmes will simply not perform well in Scotland, for example Al Murray’s Happy Hour does not rate. Neither does period drama. We also consider the time slot – we’ve come out of The Bill on a Thursday at 9pm and this slot has become home to a number of our new home-grown productions. Cost is also a consideration. As I said previously, we are a commercial business and our schedule has to be both relevant and affordable.

“This is a long-term strategy, in its early stages and importantly, we are learning along the way. We are building back up core areas within the business – scheduling, commissioning and marketing. Our production pipeline has cranked up from a virtual standing start to delivering several major series in just a few months. This year we’ll broadcast 400 hours sourced outside the network. Many of the programme decisions we’ve taken have been highly effective and we’ve seen some strong early ratings successes, but not everything has worked.

“In many respects, 2009 is a transitional year…increasingly, we’re putting home-grown content back into our schedule.

“Our news still performs very strongly – the STV News at Six is often the most watched news slot of the day on any channel. Two million people a week watch our news and editorially we rise to the challenge. Breaking stories such as the resignation of Commons speaker Michael Martin, extensive coverage of the release of Abdul Megrahi and the tenth anniversary of the Scottish Parliament…all in all, a strong counterpoint to the BBC.

“In non-news, we’re moving Scottish-produced programmes out from the shadow of EastEnders [on BBC], where they’ve traditionally been scheduled as sacrificial lambs, and putting them at the heart of the peaktime schedule. With a number of our recent new productions, we’ve invested more per programme than we would have paid for the network alternative. We’re proud of these programmes and we want to place them in accessible slots where they can attract higher audience shares.

“High quality factual series such as Made in Scotland, Scotland Revealed and the Sinking of the Royal Oak; popular documentaries on Susan Boyle’s extraordinary rise to fame and Alex Ferguson on the eve of the Champions League final; less populist but just as important material such as Scots who fought Franco – true public service broadcasting. The Hour, the only live, daily magazine show produced outside the M25. A successful acquisition programme, with Proof, Damage and Single Handed bought in. Not everything worked. Older film and acquisitions fared poorly…Sunday nights in particular, swapping out drama for film was sub-optimal. Difficult decisions on well-known titles. Our programming decisions are not set in stone; we’re looking carefully at Sunday nights going forward.

“Of the top 100 commercial programmes broadcast in Scotland so far this year, STV has broadcast 97…we made 15 of them.

“As I said earlier, we are learning from our experience, using this year to shape and refine our schedule going forward. For 2010, a strong offering…the network titans, X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, I’m a Celebrity. The World Cup and Champions League football. Coronation Street, Emmerdale. New drama, including Taggart.

“Added to the network offering, a raft of exciting, new programming and whilst it takes time to develop and produce new quality programmes, viewers will increasingly see the benefits of our strategy in the months ahead. We’ve been filming with the Black Watch in Afghanistan; David Hayman explores the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon for a new documentary to coincide with the forthcoming film; and we’ve acquired Underbelly, Australia’s most successful drama, glossy and gripping. There’ll be more sport on the schedule, live Magners League action from the 1872 Cup and in January, Football Years, starting with a celebration of 1967, when among other things the national team beat the newly-crowned World Cup champions. We’re also filming new factual entertainment for earlier in peak…an observational documentary on the workings of the Royal Dick vet school in Edinburgh. STV is Scotland’s most popular peak time TV station with over four million people tuning in each month. We want to keep it that way, and build on this.

“This is a strong statement of intent for 2010…a rich mix of content from different sources. Over 90 per cent of our schedule still comes from the ITV Network. We believe strongly in the federal system that’s served us well over the first 50 years although there’s now a pressing need to streamline and modernise the arrangements that underpin the Channel 3 system now that one company controls 92 per cent…a very different position from when there were 15 different companies around the table.

“STV is committed to being Scotland’s media brand of choice. We are a commercial organisation with a duty to shareholders and in the first half of this year, through the deepest recession, have still turned a profit, albeit a modest one. Others have not. ITV, Channel five…both loss making.

“In an industry with hundreds of job losses this year, STV is already right-sized, protecting existing roles and creating new ones.

“This year, we’ve engaged freelancers on more than 850 occasions – unusually, without producing a single episode of Taggart. We have committed to new Taggarts next year, our preference being to work with the ITV Network, the natural home, but in any event, we will commission, produce and broadcast ourselves at the very least. We recognise the popularity of the show, the high ratings it consistently attracts and the strong benefit its production brings to the creative industry in Scotland.

“Going forward, we have also laid out expansive plans for the future of news in Scotland. The DCMS [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] has recognised that news is not commercially sustainable and we have welcomed their recommendation for public funding. The DCMS has now launched the process to award funding to support impartial, high quality news on a pilot basis in Scotland and we are now talking to potential partners about how this provision might work.

“We believe in the power of partnership – for future news provision and also developing our relationship with the BBC with whom we signed a memorandum of understanding earlier this year. This is already providing valuable benefits for both organisations in terms of pooled news arrangements and we are committed to taking things even further. Working in partnership with various organisations across our business is ultimately of benefit to the viewer, who sees more resource and investment on screen.

“This, as I have said, has been a transformational time for STV, we are taking more control, not content to be a pass through for the ITV1 signal into Scotland. The schedule lies at the heart of our operation – attracting viewers and providing leverage to create an online business that is growing rapidly, now one of Scotland’s most popular websites.

“Television still touches, moves, excites, entertains, and engages people as much as ever…otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In a world of new platforms, the medium has a strong hold…there are more TV sets in the UK than there are people and the one-to-many broadcast model remains a relatively efficient way of reaching people, both commercially and technically. The UK’s broadband infrastructure would struggle to connect 15 million people at once to the X Factor and the cost of bandwidth would be excessive.

“STV is committed to playing a central role in Scotland’s broadcasting future…investing in and relaying network content and producing home grown material, creating jobs and supporting the creative industries. We don’t want simply to broadcast a schedule dictated from London. We want to encourage, support and develop a vibrant production community. We proudly remain an independent plc headquartered in Scotland, offering true plurality and competition. 

“We must control our own destiny, delivering a relevant and affordable schedule that capitalises on the best network content available to us and at the same time stays true to the strong regional roots of Channel 3 as we transition to a fully digital age.”