S4C Debate 5: Scottish TV builds while Wales burns

Dave Smith gives an insight into the way the Scots are planning a way forward for broadcasting that has parallels with Wales

Scottish audiences deserve more choice, more opportunities to see television with a strongly but not narrowly Scottish perspective.

As the managing director of a Glasgow-based independent production company, Matchlight, I am obviously going to argue for the establishment of a new broadcaster in Scotland. It’s the opposite of the old ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ metaphor. But as a viewer I am also very much in favour of the formation of the Scottish Digital Network.

S4C Debate – a Scottish Perspective

In November a debate took place in Glasgow on a proposal for a new Scottish Digital Network – a proposal for a new Scottish television channel first put forward by the Scottish Broadcasting Commission more than two years ago. More than 200 people were present to hear the former director general of the BBC, Greg Dyke. Jim Raeburn, director of the Scottish Newspaper Society, and Dave Rushton, director of the Institute of Local Television, and Dave Smith.

Before I go any further I should stress that I firmly believe that the BBC is very good at what it does. It is a cornerstone of much of what we most value in our culture and it is our most trusted source of news and information. At its best, it more than lives up to Huw Wheldon’s maxim: repeatedly making the good popular and the popular good. We are much the richer for it.

Trade newspaper, Broadcast, recently revealed that Sky now has more than 10 million subscribers in the UK and that the average revenue generated per user is £514. Compare that with the cost of the licence fee (£145.50 per annum) and the BBC is clearly not just good, its good value. This is true of the BBC as a whole but it is also true of BBC Scotland.

In BBC Scotland we have a national public service broadcaster that lives up to its remit. A PSB that serves a wide range of Scottish audiences by presenting quality programmes from a wide range of both inhouse and indie suppliers. It’s not perfect – I don’t get the obsession with football – but it’s undeniably first rate.

The big negative is that there is not enough of BBC Scotland. As an opt-out service it must play within those parts of the BBC 1 and BBC 2 schedules that are available to it. As a result, there is a cap on its real estate, a limit to the slots it can fill. While an opt-out service, very importantly, allows Scottish viewers to access Scottish content on the familiar main channels, it also restricts the volume of programming on those channels that can be targeted specifically at Scottish viewers. This severely limits the scope of the domestic Scottish television market.

I do not think the answer is to open up more of the BBC 1 and BBC 2 schedules to BBC Scotland. It is a strength that BBC Scotland programming appears within the network BBC schedules. It is what the audience expects and it gives that programming the prominence it deserves. But getting the balance right between Scottish content and national network programming is vital. Get it wrong and you either under represent Scotland on the main stage or you rob Scottish viewers of their opportunity to participate in the national conversation that still surrounds all great television – as STV has demonstrated so clearly by opting not to carry Downton Abbey.

This leads me to my second point. As much as it lacks real estate BBC Scotland also lacks serious public service competition. STV has, for largely financial reasons, made a number of decisions over the last few years that have undermined its ability to compete with BBC Scotland as a public service broadcaster. According to Ofcom’s Public Service Broadcasting Report for 2010, investment in English-language programming for the nations and regions by ITV1/STV/UTV fell by £39 million between 2008 and 2009. That’s a lot of public service television that simply no longer exists in the UK nations.

The main casualties in this cull have been news, current affairs and the more ambitious, less parochial factual programmes for which STV was once highly regarded. That said, while Ofcom currently requires STV to transmit just one-and-a half hours worth of non-news Scottish programming per week it regularly exceeds Ofcom’s modest expectations. A by-product of STV’s cost saving tactic of opting out of the ITV schedule to provide, instead, its own in-house productions is that our national Channel 3 license holder now regularly exceeds its Ofcom mandated target.

It is also worth mentioning that STV is the only national public service broadcaster in Europe that does not commission, in any meaningful way, content from independent producers. This has been disastrous for the smaller independent producers who previously survived by selling films to STV. Much worse though is the impact on viewers. Drawing programme ideas from a small pool, an in-house pool that is guaranteed to win business, isn’t a recipe for innovation. Plurality of supply is a prerequisite for creative, diverse and healthy media. BBC Scotland gets this point but BBC Scotland – like any top team – needs strong competition to keep it at the top of its game.

That said, even if STV were PSB premiership material, I’m not sure why we should have to rely on opt-out slots alone for our national broadcasters. Though competition is important, consistent and substantial real estate in prime time is essential. As I said at the outset, I am very much in favour of the formation of the Scottish Digital Network. As currently contemplated it will be a publisher broadcaster, with public service at its heart, that delivers high-quality, original, Scottish focused television every evening. That last sentence contains a number of points that are worth repeating: high quality – public service – Scottish-focused – original – and, last but not least, publisher-broadcaster.

The proposal, as it stands is that the SDN would not have any in-house production capacity. Instead, it would look to independent producers – and, I presume, STV Productions – to devise, develop and deliver its output. This would be a competitive process. No guarantees to any supplier, just the best ideas winning through every night. That’s very good news for both Scottish viewers and Scottish production companies. Any supplier in any market will welcome the arrival of a new buyer with a significant demand for their product but there’s a wider point to be made here.

In the last survey of the UK’s independent production companies by trade journal Televisual, Scottish companies were conspicuous by their absence. Only three standalone Scottish companies were in the top 100. Tern were highest placed at number 50. Matchlight, the company I started with some colleagues from IWC and the BBC last summer, was number 72. IWC and the Comedy Unit did not have individual listings but were in the UK Top 10 as part of the pan-European super-super-indie Zodiak. Keo, Lion and Shed are counted as part of their respective UK groups. While many Scottish indies are punching above their weight we are dwarfed by our neighbours in London. The vast majority of the UK top 100 production houses have phone numbers that start with 0207 or 0208. The combined turnover of the UK Top Ten is £1.2 billion but only one of the UK top ten is head-quartered outside of London.

Tinopolis, from Carmarthenshire, grew quickly thanks to its success as a supplier to S4C. It is the UK’s eighth-biggest producer. There’s a lesson to be drawn from that. In Scotland we are too few, too small and too narrowly focused. With one or two honourable exceptions, most indigenous production outfits, my own included, focus almost exclusively on factual programming. Factual commissions are more frequent but tariffs – the licence fees paid by broadcasters – are usually much lower per hour.

When the higher value genres, specifically drama and entertainment, are made in Scotland they are made in-house by BBC Scotland or by independents that the BBC has encouraged to move to Scotland. The formats, the intellectual property that produces real value, tends not to be owned by indigenous Scottish companies.

Why is that? I think the issue is that, in the last ten years, the opportunities available to programme makers who choose to stay in Scotland have steadily diminished. Investment has reduced, scale has not been achieved by many and sustainability is a constant issue.

A cross-genre publisher broadcaster with its commissioning team based in Scotland that sat alongside a strong BBC Scotland and a resurgent STV free of PSB obligations would provide Scottish production companies with a powerful commercial impetus. It would give us the confidence we need to invest in new genres, to develop new talent and to grow the vital intellectual property that funds all of the significant growth we have seen elsewhere in the UK’s production sector.

And it’s worth underling here that the value would stay in Scotland. The programme budgets would largely be spent in Scotland by Scottish producers on Scottish talent employed to make original programmes with a Scottish perspective.

My final point though is one of ambition. We are in an era where platforms have merged and content really is king. In this brave new world do we want our content producing sector to be world-class or middling? Do we think scale is important or do we want to stick where we are? Plurality is as important for audiences as it is for commercial supply chains. There is no security when you have just one potential domestic buyer. A limited market acts to cap growth because investment becomes significantly more risky when all of your eggs are in one basket.

Added to this is the elephant in the corner. The fact that Scotland’s nearest neighbour has one of the most successful, vibrant and commercial media sectors in the world. Gravity acts on talent. If we cannot offer a sustainable alternative we cannot bemoan the loss of our brightest, their creativity, the IP that they create and the revenue that IP generates in the global digital market.

The Scottish Digital Network is a potential game changer. It offers Scotland an opportunity to achieve a place in the premier league of global content creators. If we can increase our domestic market for high quality, cross-platform, public service television we can, for the first time, look to build a number of indigenous production companies of scale. This will create skilled jobs for many at all levels of production. By locating commissioning in Scotland competition in the domestic market will increase significantly. Competition for scarce resources is the driver of all evolutionary improvements.

What Scotland needs most if it is to win on the international market is: credible businesses of scale, led by programme makers of repute who devise and deliver original content of quality and popular appeal – content that stands up to Huw Wheldon’s PSB maxim I mentioned at the top – good and popular, popular and good.

Ideas are now and always will be televisions hardest currency. We need more idea generators and business winners and the SDN is, in my opinion, a vital part of the puzzle, a pre-requisite to our achieving that goal.

Dave Smith is Managing Director of Matchlight, the independent TV production company.

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