While the pipe music echoed through the concrete canyons of New York in the annual Tartan Day parade a few weeks ago, a large banner carried by marchers informed the enthusiastic crowds that they could now enjoy a little bit of Scotland much more often – twice a week, in fact, on local TV.
From 2 April, station WLIW21 – fourth largest in the network of the US Public Broadcasting network – started screening, each Saturday night, with a repeat on Tuesdays, a programme of all things Scottish entitled Tartan TV. It’s quite a coup for one of Scotland’s tightest little TV operations – a total staff of seven – producing a show which will never be seen in Scotland itself.
The programme is the brainchild of Fiona Kennedy, singing star of the Scots showbiz family described by her American publicist as “the Von Trapps of Scotland” working with former BBC man Robert Sproul-Cran.
And just to underline that in a small operation everyone mucks in, Fiona herself was one of those carrying the banner down the Avenue of the Americas in the midst of the pipers. Later she organised a party in a New York pub at which she and uncle Alasdair Gillies sang, and, of course, there was the whole series of radio interviews to be given across America.
Tartan TV, a 30-minute weekly travel and culture magazine, produced entirely in Aberdeen, apart from occasional forays to places like New York for Tartan Day, got its first showing on PBS stations in America earlier this year, after being first shown in Canada. The series is planned to run for 13 weeks, and a second series is already on the launching pad.
“The New York programme is the breakthrough we have all been looking for,” said Fiona, speaking to me at the official launch at the Scotland Village in Grand Central station – which, a bit like Brigadoon, was appearing just for a week.
The show, already on air in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco will also start in April in Pittsburgh, Nashville and Seattle. It has received a “particularly great reception” in the Carolinas, said Fiona.
When all these stations come on stream, Tartan TV will have access to a potential audience each week of 40 million people.
Fiona said: “We are now in over half the PBS stations in America, and in New York our programme is scheduled in prime time; going out at 7.30pm right after the BBC World News, which itself attracts a big audience.”
Scot-aholics at some others spots in the Nation have to stay up until the wee sma’ hoors to get their fix of shortbread.
In fact, Walkers shortbread had been in there supporting Tartan TV from the start. “They have been fabulous,” said Fiona. Now Walkers have been joined as sponsors by the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Heriot Watt University. Music and video firm Scotdisc and financial powerhouse Aberdeen Asset Management make up the list.
Also there for Tartan TV are stars like Sean Connery, Ewan McGregor and Billy Connolly, who have all given exclusive interviews.
“The big names in Scottish entertainment have all stepped up to the plate,” said Fiona. “They couldn’t have been more supportive.”
At WLIW21, spokeswoman Susan Soberman told me: “This is very much a first for us. We are well known for ethnic programming and this seems the right time to do this with the upsurge of interest in all things Scottish. We like the format of Tartan TV and with its positioning right behind the BBC news, we are confident it will do well.”
The station has a cumulative weekly audience of two million households in the Tri-State area.
Genealogy will be a key element of the programs with Robert Sproul-Cran, CEO of Tartan TV, using his on-screen name of Robert Scott, to take viewers through the history of famous Scottish family names.
With a modest budget for the launch across America, it was left to Kelly & Salerno Communications, an upstate New York PR company to devise a strategy for Tartan TV, which would give the biggest bang for the buck.
Colby Kelly said: “We worked to build awareness of the TV series by building upon events scheduled to take place during Tartan Week.
“Given Fiona’s media savvy, she made an appealing spokesperson for Tartan TV and ‘all things Scottish’ during a radio satellite tour we booked across the country. In interviews during morning drive time, she talked with reporters from USA Radio Network, WOR-AM in New York, WTOP in Washington DC, Metro Networks in Chicago and KIRO AM in Seattle, to name a few.
“She explained the history of Tartan Day in America, answered the most general questions about tartans, Scots in America and Scottish ancestry, the significance of the Wallace sword and much more.”
The final coup was two weeks ago when Fiona was interviewed by Dateline NBC’s Stone Phillips to go out on national TV.
The revenue for the show is derived almost entirely from sponsorship. There is no advertising and cash-strapped public TV stations in the US do not as a rule pay for this type of programming.
But Fiona and Robert’s business plan does take in a highly active website www.tartan.tv which is already adding to the revenues.
Susan Stewart, who is controversially about to be replaced as Scotland’s spokeswoman at the British Embassy in Washington, said, “Fiona and Robert are relentlessly positive and are brilliant ambassadors for Scotland. Tartan TV is a great showcase for Scotland.”