Scottish Digital Network Recommendation is Rejuvenated with Appointment of Experts Panel

A recommendation presented two years ago to launch a new digital TV channel dedicated to 'high quality' Scottish content has had new life breathed into it, with the formation of an 'independent panel of experts' tasked to investigate how it could be funded.

Scottish Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop, has asked the chair of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission, Blair Jenkins, to – says a media release issued by the Scottish Government – “lead an independent panel of experts which will investigate options for establishing and funding a new Scottish digital network providing public service broadcasting”.

It was Jenkins' Scottish Broadcasting Commission that recommended that a Scottish Digital Network be set up, comprising a digital TV channel supported by a substantial online presence, dedicated to the commissioning and transmission of high quality Scottish content.

The Commission had been set up a year previously by First Minister, Alex Salmond, amid concerns – now partly addressed – that Scotland-made productions were making up too small a proportion of UK-wide network transmissions on the likes of the BBC.

When the SBC presented its recommendations of two years ago to the Scottish Parliament, they – unusually – received unanimous support from MSPs.

The panel comprises, among others, the former editor of The Herald, Charles McGhee, now a media consultant. 

A date of early next year has been set for the panel to present its thoughts.

Adds the statement: “Recommendations are expected to be with Ministers early in 2011 and will include consideration of findings on the viability of local television expected to come from the UK Government-commissioned Shott Review in December 2010.”

Hyslop is quoted, saying: “After more than 50 years of opt-out television services, a dedicated Scottish digital network would completely transform our perspective.

“There is unanimous support for the network in the Scottish Parliament, and recognition of its potential to develop Scotland's broadcasting sector, provide more high-quality programmes for Scottish audiences, and create much-needed competition for the BBC.”

The SBC estimated it would cost about £75 million to run the Scottish Digital Network per year and was hoping funding would come from Westminster, including from the sale of TV spectrum following the switchover of TV signals from analogue to digital.

Adds Hyslop: “The key difficulty in establishing it has been agreeing how it should be funded. That is why I have asked the panel to explore that issue and come up with proposals by the middle of January 2011.

“It is estimated that the network, alongside the increased commitments from existing public service broadcasters which we are starting to see, would double the economic impact of the broadcasting industry and the number of jobs supported in Scotland.

“Scottish audiences deserve their own network, embracing television, online and interactive content. Research for the Commission showed more than 80 per cent of viewers were interested in a new Scottish digital TV channel.”

She continued: “UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt complained at the Edinburgh International Television Festival about the 'chronic over-centralisation' of broadcasting in the UK. I want the independent panel to make recommendations which can help the UK Government address this problem by coming up with proposals for how a digital network – with scope for local opt-outs – could be established in Scotland.

“A new public service broadcasting network would, of course, have to be demonstrably independent of Government in its editorial polices and management, and I have also asked the Panel to take account of that in their recommendations.”

The panel also includes Professor Neil Blain, Head of Film, Media and Journalism at Stirling University, and Judith Mackenzie, investment director at Downing Corporate Finance. Completing the quintet is David Wightman, former member of the Scottish Broadcasting Commission and founder and former chief executive of Creative Edge Software.

Said Jenkins: “I'm delighted to be chairing the panel and to be working with such distinguished and talented people. The creation of a new Scottish Digital Network was the most important recommendation made by the SBC and it was singled out for support in the motion backed by all the parties in the Scottish Parliament. We now need to build on the very wide public and political enthusiasm for this initiative and come up with the best options for funding. The case for the network has been made; now the investment has to be secured.”

Among the responses, the Scottish Tories' Shadow Culture Minister, Ted Brocklebank MSP, said: “I welcome this announcement by the Scottish Culture Minister for a review into a new Scottish digital channel, an initiative first mooted by Scottish Conservatives over three years ago, and subsequently backed by Blair Jenkins' Scottish Broadcasting Commission.

“Such a network would provide the BBC with much-needed competition and could act as the core channel for up to 16 local or city TV stations up and down Scotland under Conservative proposals for the future of UK broadcasting.

“What is essential is that we get the funding model right and the Scottish Government must accept that the private sector has a key role to play in the funding of the new channel through paid advertising or sponsorship. In the current economic climate it is pie-in-the-sky to suggest that £75 million of public money could be spent on a new TV channel for Scotland. The SNP Government should make this clear to its new review body so that the public isn't misled into thinking that this is a venture which will be a drain on the public purse.”

But not everyone is thrilled with the way the panel has been set up. Says Dave Rushton, of the Institute of Local Television: “The Scottish Government has some nerve addressing local TV in this new panel without consulting local TV on its expertise. 

“The chronic ‘over-centralisation of broadcasting’, cited by Fiona Hyslop, is no more obvious than in Scotland where 96 per cent of Scottish broadcasting is concentrated on Glasgow. 

“On the back of the UK Government’s local TV study conducted by Nicholas Shott, the aim is to further a national Scottish Digital Network objective, that may or may not include local TV components – subject to representation and panel agreement. 

“Richard Wilkin’s of the Scottish Government’s creative industries and broadcasting policy, culture division admits to opportunism – or at least ‘seizing an opportunity’ – when he says 'The Scottish Government are taking advantage of the UK Government's interest in local television to present its case for funding the Scottish Digital Network'. This opportunity has been contrived at the expense of a welcome opportunity to set up a joint local and national TV panel comprising the Scottish Local TV Federation and Scottish Broadcasting Commission members to explore how best to deliver and fund the range as well as depth of programming that Scotland’s viewers’ require. 

“The TNS System Three survey of programming requirements in Scotland, commissioned by the Scottish Government on behalf of the earlier Scottish Broadcasting Commission, found local TV news and current affairs programmes to be wanted as much or more than further national programmes. Scotland already has two Glasgow based channels and these have recently begun to improve their Scotland-wide content. 

“Access to digital spectrum – should it be offered – has been secured by the effort of 31 local TV submissions from cities and regions across Scotland, by a Federation of local TV services with well-developed plans to opt in national and federal Scottish programmes to sustain each local TV service. Each service would operate under local editorial control and be tailored first and foremost to address its local civic community and – as necessary – provide local context to imported national programming.”