Parliament Told of Stalled Plans to Implement 'Scottish Digital Network'

The Scottish Government's Culture Minister has admitted that plans to create a digital TV channel dedicated to Scottish content have not progressed as quickly as she would have liked. 

In a broadcasting industry update to the Scottish Parliament, Fiona Hyslop said that the case for the Scottish Digital Network – the main recommendation two years ago of a Scottish Broadcasting Commission set up by First Minister, Alex Salmond, the previous year – had strengthened rather than weakened, since it was first mooted.

She broke her update into three parts, each reflecting an area of broadcasting in Scotland identified by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission. 

During her ten-minute speech, she also urged greater broadcasting spend by Channel 4 in Scotland.

The first issue concerned commissioning by the BBC and Channel 4 of TV programmes from Scotland-based producers. The second concerned the role, if any, of the public sector. And the third was to do with the Scottish Digital Network.

She, however, began by saying: “One area of progress in the last year has been the UK Government’s acceptance that the appointment of the BBC Trust member for Scotland should in future be a matter for Scottish Ministers. In the short term, the appointment of Jeremy Peat’s successor is being taken forward as a joint process by the Scottish and UK governments.”

On the first issue, she said: “It is worth remembering that the core reason for the [Scottish Broadcasting] Commission’s establishment was the release of figures which showed that Scotland’s share of UK network production had fallen from six per cent in 2004 to less than three per cent in 2006.

“The last year has seen some genuine progress, although far more still needs to be done. Scotland’s share of network production increased from 2.5 per cent in 2008 to 3.6 per cent in 2009. That includes a particularly significant increase from the BBC – where Scotland now accounts for 6.1 per cent of network [UK] commissions – up from 3.7 per cent in 2008. That increase alone, incidentally, represents an injection of an additional £19.5 million into the Scottish economy.

“I believe that the BBC should aim for Scotland to account for 8.6 per cent of network programming by 2012, rather than its original target date of 2016. The rapid progress it has already made certainly suggests that the target could sustainably be met considerably earlier than 2016.”

Regarding Channel 4, she went on: “Progress from Channel 4 has been significantly slower. Channel 4’s share of network production in 2009 increased from 1.4 per cent to 2.5 per cent, and it expects a further increase in 2010. Channel 4 does contribute a considerable amount of work in relation to the digital media and film industries in Scotland. 

“I believe that [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom should move to account more for this in their work. Indeed, I saw evidence of the value of Channel 4’s work at first hand earlier this month when I visited Tag Games and Dynamo Games in Dundee – both of which had benefited from investment by Channel 4 and Creative Scotland. We will continue to work constructively with Channel 4 to maximise the positive and welcome contribution I fully acknowledge it is making to Scotland’s creative industries.

“However for as long as Channel 4’s broadcasting expenditure – which is by far the largest part of its overall budget – is so low, I will continue to press it to do more.”

A Channel 4 spokesperson told allmediascotland: “Our figures for share of network production have improved, and will continue to improve in 2010 – we want to commission more in Scotland.

“Channel 4’s unique challenge is that we are entirely dependent upon the strength of the independent sector – there is broad agreement within the industry that the relative areas of weaknesses are in major returning factual entertainment series and drama series; but set against this, is significant performance in the area of fantastic author based films. 

“For example, Peter Mullan’s Neds has just won the Golden Shell award at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and Mark Cousin’s First Movie has recently won the special documentary prize at The Prix Italia Awards – both of which are Channel 4 projects.

“These successes, coupled with our huge commitment to digital projects and innovation in Scotland are without question, and we welcome the minister’s recognition of our achievements thus far.”

Meanwhile, on the second issue, Hyslop continued: “The increase in network production in Scotland provides an important opportunity for the independent production sector. One of my first steps, on taking over as Minister for Culture and External Affairs, was to hold a broadcasting conference in Glasgow, and then to chair a meeting between broadcasters, independent producers and public sector agencies at which we explored the issues facing the television production sector. I was left in no doubt about everyone’s commitment to working in partnership, and about the creativity and drive which exists in many parts of the independent sector.

“As many of you will be aware, Scottish Enterprise and Creative Scotland recently published the report of the broadcasting and television production industry advisory group Scottish Enterprise established last year.

“Many of these recommendations are already being implemented. Scottish Enterprise is today publishing its report into production build space in Scotland, as a follow up to one of the recommendations in that report. 

“However the key theme which runs through the report is one of partnership – how much stronger the production sector is when public agencies, broadcasters and independent producers are able to work together for the benefit of the sector. I strongly encourage Creative Scotland to play a lead role in maintaining this partnership approach and I am pleased that it has already agreed partnerships with the BBC and STV.”

Regarding the Scottish Digital Network – which has the unanimous support of the Scottish Parliament – Hyslop admitted: “We have had less success so far in trying to implement the Broadcasting Commission’s proposal for a Scottish Digital Network.

“The case for a network has strengthened, rather than weakened, over the last two years. Reports by both Ofcom and the previous UK Government in 2009 highlighted the dangers to public service broadcasting plurality in Scotland if major steps were not taken. 

“STV’s efforts to increase its domestic production are welcome, and we support the contribution that STV can make to Scottish broadcasting and the creative economy. However 'opt-out' programmes on Channel 3 clearly have limits in providing secure and sustainable competition to the BBC over the full range of Scottish public service programming.

“Furthermore, the success of BBC ALBA, as noted by the Parliament in February of this year, gives some indication of the appetite in Scotland for more Scottish content. If the BBC Trust were to place BBC ALBA on Freeview – as the Scottish Government has repeatedly emphasised it should – then that appetite would be even clearer.”

The planned Scottish Digital Network would be a digital TV channel backed by a large online presence.

“There is just now, however, a window of opportunity. Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, has spoken of the “chronic over-centralisation” of UK broadcasting. That is, I think, an opinion which every member of this Parliament would endorse.

“The UK Government wants to address this chronic over-centralisation, which is why it has established a panel, chaired by Nicholas Shott, to explore what needs to be done to make local television commercially viable. Nicholas Shott expects to conclude his report in late November, and the UK Government will then launch a consultation on local television in early January.

“I have had very constructive meetings with both Jeremy Hunt and Nicholas Shott during the last five week. Nicholas Shott’s initial views, which were published yesterday, state that he recognises there are particular requirements in the nations of the UK, and that his final report will include further analysis of these.

“The Scottish Parliament is unanimously behind a digital network which, in the words of the Broadcasting Commission’s final report, 'could certainly accommodate opportunities for more locaIised broadcasting'. It is clear that Nicholas Shott is investigating how local television could be supported by a 'host' channel, although his initial thinking is that this could perhaps be provided by existing public service broadcasters. 

“The views of this Parliament and the UK Government are actually very close in their common desire for more localised broadcasting. However, it is clear that much work will still be needed to marry the UK Government’s ambitions with those of this Parliament. In particular, the issue of funding will be important.

“For that reason, two weeks ago I established the Scottish Digital Network Panel, to be chaired by [SBC chair and former head of news and current affairs at BBC Scotland] Blair Jenkins, in order to assess how a Scottish Digital Network could be established and funded.

“I have already made it clear to the UK Government that I want the work of the digital network panel to complement, rather than compete with, the work being undertaken by Nicholas Shott. I very much hope that the Scottish Digital Network Panel will form a constructive working relationship with Nicholas Shott’s team. By doing so, it can inform the consultation on local television which the UK Government plans to launch in January of next year.”

Overall, Hyslop concluded: “Presiding Officer, I want to work with other parties at Holyrood as far as is possible. The case for a digital network, and for increased commissioning from Scotland, has so far been significantly strengthened by the consensus which has surrounded broadcasting in Scotland since the Commission first reported.

“And the quality of debate about broadcasting has been heightened by the constructive approach shown by opposition spokespeople in our debates and discussions on broadcasting so far.

“I hope that we can continue to take forward the debate on broadcasting in Scotland as constructively as possible, and that where we do differ, we respect each other’s different perspectives.

“The events of the last year have demonstrated that an approach of partnership can yield real results. There is still, of course, much more to do.

“However, I hope that the Scottish Government and this Parliament can make a real difference. Because by doing so, we will enhance broadcasting’s role in the democratic, economic and cultural life of the nation.”