Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.
The Herald’s piece this week about the supposed dramatic success of BBC Alba following its move to Freeview claims the channel - a joint venture between the BBC and Gaelic langauge service MG Alba - makes for interesting reading
Go through David Ross’ article and you’ll notice there’s no actual viewing data in there. Lots of figures banded about talking about weekly reach, about the comparison between Welsh speakers and Gaels, and a claim that “more than 500,000 watched BBC Alba on average in June, July, August and September”.
A casual read of the article might give the impression these figures are official stats, particularly since it draws comparison with channels such as Sky Living, Sky Sports News and Yesterday.
But there’s just one problem with all these figures being cited and comparisons with rival broadcasters. They’re completely, and utterly, meaningless.
Hidden away in Ross’ piece are two key phrases. “These figures are for viewers in Scotland”, and “Although the figures are calculated differently”.
Television ratings are compiled, in the UK, by the British Audience Research Bureau, or BARB. It marks an industry standard, a benchmark for which all legitimate television channels are measured. It allows channel controllers, advertisers, commissioners and industry watchers to see how channels are performing, who’s watching and what they’re tuning into.
BBC Alba isn’t measured by BARB. This is why you’ll not see any breakdown of viewing figures in the Herald article. It’s why, over ALBA’s lifespan so far, you’ve not seen them celebrate record ratings for individual programmes. It’s why we don’t know whether it’s the SPL, the Mod, Belladrum or repeats of Speaking Our Language which are drawing viewers to the channel.
Traditionally, ALBA’s viewing data - what little has been produced - has come from polling data and limited viewing diaries. But polling data inevitably produces sample bias, and that in turn brings into question the legitimacy of the figures being cited.
For instance, I could go into a sci-fi convention and ask 100 people if they watched Torchwood. The chances are, the majority of people will say yes. From that, should I extrapolate that the majority of the UK watches the show? Yes, according to the survey - and very much no according to BARB’s viewing figures.
The Herald claims that Alba’s reach in Scotland is now greater than BBC 4. But that data is compiled in a different way to official figures and, without access to the questions, demographics and geography involved in compiling the figures cited by the Herald, you may as well be comparing apples and rhinos.
Alba’s reasoning for staying off BARB so far has been understandable. The research board’s methodology only extends to mainline Britain, thus excluding the Islands and their Gaelic-speaking population. But when I spoke to the channel’s head of operations Alan Esselmont last year, he claimed Alba would succeed only “if [it] just becomes a normal channel for people in Scotland“.
And therein lies the big issue. BBC Alba wants all the benefits of being a normal terrestrial channel - with Freeview access, extra public funding, sports rights and so forth. Yet without legitimate industry standard ratings data, it has none of the accountability.
The problem is, criticising Alba always risks being an emotive issue, driven as often by ideology as by fact. A colleague yesterday claimed it was a dead language, and that teaching Chinese or Indian would be a better use of money. There are legitimate questions to be asked about the value of spending money on the channel when the Delivering Quality First initiative is cutting programming and jobs elsewhere across the Corporation. And there are clear issues with the removal of the BBC radio services from Freeview in place of the channel given the nation’s poor internet take-up and the limited availability of DAB radio.
But conversely, the channel serves a valuable purpose. There is a clear need for proper Gaelic broadcasting, particularly if - as reports suggest - the number of speakers in Scotland is on the rise. The legacy of S4C in creating a production powerhouse in Wales - currently responsible for the output of a good chunk of the BBC’s most popular dramas - shows the value of investment in indigenous language production services. And criticising ALBA invariably sparks accusations of anti-Gaelic attitudes among speakers.
But if the figures the Herald claims are legitimate - which may well be the case - then there’s a simple solution to all this.
Back in December of last year, the BBC Trust issued its final report into a public value test of BBC Alba, to determine whether or not the channel should continue and whether the move to Freeview should go ahead. The report concluded that the channel should indeed be implementing BARB measurement once the channel was watched by 500,000 people for 15 minutes or more a week.
"At this level of viewing we would expect accurate performance measurement via BARB to be available, and so look to the Executive to implement this in order to provide evidence for BBC ALBA’s service review in due course."
So over to you, Alba. If the channel really is pulling in the viewing figures which have been spun to the Herald, there’s no excuse for it not to be rated by BARB, and for legitimate, industry standard data - rather than the Family Fortunes approach previously employed - to be produced on a regular basis. Then we can see once and for all just how much of a success story, or smoke and mirrors failure, BBC Alba has been.
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