In My Opinion: Iain Hepburn: STV’s Scotland Tonight plans

AN interesting announcement by STV, as they unveiled plans for a rival to Newsnight Scotland during the publishing of their annual results.

Scotland Tonight is pitched as a half-hour, Monday to Thursday current affairs show featuring news, sport, and political discussion from around the country, putting it somewhere between Newsnight and Nationwide.

The shows won’t go head to head, based on the initial scheduling plans, but it’s obvious that the commerical broadcaster is hoping to beat its next door neighbour to the punch in terms of covering big stories and getting heavyweight guests in before the much-maligned Newsnicht goes to air.

STV chief, Rob Woodward, is quoted in The Drum, saying: “The performance of our news has gone from strength to strength and so off the back of our more localised bulletins, our ratings have continued to increase, so what we’re doing is building off of that success …

“We’ll see how it goes, but as far as we’re concerned we see that there is a very strong demand for such a programme that addresses the news of Scotland.”

All very worthy stuff, and of course it’s being presented as another example of STV striking out on its own away from the main Channel 3 schedules.

But there is another filter through which this and other moves by STV must be considered, though – and that is the renewal of its franchise for Scotland in three years time.

STV had a scare last year when the IFNC [Independently Funded News Consortia] bid process saw it lose out to a newspaper consortium, showing the broadcaster that it is no longer invulnerable north of the border. The long-running (and now resolved) dispute with ITV over dropping network content – and the associated rights fees to go with those shows – added spice to an already intriguing situation with regards to the channel’s public service commitments.

With the IFNC bids replaced by Jeremy Hunt’s move to launch local TV services across the UK – including nine in STV’s transmission area – the broadcaster needs to be seen to be meeting, and if possible exceeding, its public service commitments.

The Channel 3 franchises expire at the end of 2014, but the bidding and negotiation process goes on long before that – particularly with digital switchover freeing up spectrum space and ITV’s availability in Scotland via non-terrestrial platforms offering a Channel 3 rival to the Pacific Quay broadcaster.

Chuck in Holyrood’s moves to secure licence fee or spectrum sell-off funding to launch the Scottish Digital Network – which would offer an audience rival to STV – and the need to be seen to provide public service content is greater than ever.

And this is undoubtedly a factor in launching projects like STV Local and the STV Appeal – ventures which are unlikely to prove major moneyspinners for a commercial broadcaster but tick lots of boxes when it comes to proving public service targets, come the bidding stage.

The broadcaster is required to provide four hours of news content a week, but with the loss of Sports Centre and 80 per cent of The Hour, the amount of shows being generated and presented from PQ looks a lot flimsier leaving 2011 than it did coming in.

An extra two hours of news content a week, drawing the best reports and reporters from DJ MacDonald’s team in Aberdeen and Dundee, and the recently-strengthened crew in Edinburgh, is a nice way to keep Scots politicians and [broadcasting regulators] Ofcom sweet by both filling a scheduling gap and showing commitment to the regions.

And what will BBC Scotland’s response be? Facing financial cutbacks because of the licence fee settlement deal, STV’s neighbours down the river seem to face three options:

One is to maintain the status quo. A second would be to try and take on Scotland Tonight with an expanded Newsnicht – possibly opting out of the main network version altogether. The third, which may be the most controversial, would be dumping Newsnight Scotland entirely and just airing the network show.

Such a move, however, offers more ammunition to the hardcore Nat critics who already complain the BBC offers not enough Scottish news content – one of the supposed reasons given in their push for the Scottish Digital Network deployment.

What will be interesting is to see how viewing figures hold up for the shows. STV’s news output has substantially improved – both online and off – in recent years but outside of traditional viewing times, news programmes are ratings death. If audiences don’t flock to the new show, how long would the channel give Scotland Tonight when they could be airing dramas or films in that slot, which will pull in higher audiences?

Or, to look at it another way, how long would they need to give the show for it to be a part of their franchise renewal pitch?

Iain Hepburn is director of brand journalism with Contently Managed, and former digital editor of the Daily Record. This column originally appeared on