Network issues

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.

Follow him on Twitter at @iainmhepburn

Let me take you back in time, faithful readers. Back through the ages, to a time less cynical, when the air was full of wonder and snow lay crisp on the ground.

Twenty years ago, to be precise. When the video above aired on the nation’s screens.

Three things you immediately notice from that little video.

  1. How wooden Jim White is when he’s not yelping histrionically at the camera on transfer deadline day
  2. That even with a wooden Jim White and five minutes of trailers to fill, it’s still a better promo than that god-awful STV.TV/PLAYER thing running at the moment
  3. Didn’t STV produce a lot of very interesting programmes 20 years ago?

And that last point’s the clincher.

When you look at the sheer breadth of content being produced by Scotland’s commercial channel in Winter 1992, there seems to be more original output there in a three-month programming block than you’d get from Central Quay in a year these days.

And don’t forget, this was just STV - pre-merger, Grampian was still producing its own separate slate of shows - hands up who remembers the Art Sutter Show?

Music. Documentaries. Current affairs. Social investigations. Arts. Sport. Original drama and comedy. Even Glen Michael’s Cavalcade. All produced, at that time, from Cowcaddens. And notably, not a network programme in sight.

Nowadays, a promo video from STV that wasn’t hailing their transmission of Coronation Street, The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent or Downton Abbey would be unthinkable.

Indeed, that Winter ‘92 on STV package looks more like a modern-day BBC Scotland schedule than a commercial channel one. Viewing it now, in a month where Auntie - even in these impoverished, Delivering Quality First days - can recommission three hit original Scots comedy series for 2012, the creative gap between the two channels looks ever wider.

When was the last time STV produced a winter schedule as jam-packed with its own material as in Jim White’s awkward video above? Indeed, Taggart aside, when was the last time STV produced something locally that was a hit drama or comedy? Probably High Times - and that was half a decade ago.

It’s not STV’s fault, of course. Not really. It’s a commercial channel, and the nature of commercial programming has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Without the comfort zone of the licence fee which its near-neighbour along the river enjoys, programming either has to pay for itself in sponsorship or ratings-driven ad revenues, or it needs to tick a public service remit box - particularly with franchise renewal talks looming.

It has commitments to shareholders, to advertisers and sponsors, to hit ratings targets and KPIs, to drive revenue and make profits. And worthy television, sadly, isn’t something that often generates revenue or ratings on the third channel.

The amalgamation of most of the UK’s independent regional broadcasters has turned the third channel from a ragbag of companies producing their own local schedules into - to all intents and purposes - a centralised network.

Despite not being owned by ITV, STV’s reliance on network big-hitters like The X Factor, Corrie, Emmerdale and so forth has left the channel, near enough, very much in the pocket of its larger English cousin. These days, the channel itself admits, 95% of its output comes from the network.

And we’ve seen what happens when the two fall out.

STV was slated in the media and by viewers when its row with ITV saw the channel dropping a clutch of networked programmes in favour of locally made documentaries, archival repeats or Irish and Aussie buy-ins.

Despite attempts to portray this as STV striking out on its own, the move backfired as viewers were denied the chance to see talking point series such as Downton, and a very public climbdown saw those shows finally getting an airing this year.

So it will be interesting to see what pays the price in next year’s schedules for the two firms getting on again.

The settlement agreement between the two companies, confirmed to the Stock Market earlier this month, revealed the broadcaster will be paying out £600,000 from the New Year for 18 months - the equivalent of around half STV’s monthly profit.

The balance of the settlement from north to south of the border will come from ‘opt-out programme savings’ - and STV confirmed to me that there were no new opt-outs planned, in terms of the amount of content to be shown next year.

“We plan to continue to air around 95% of the network schedule, there will be updates on any schedule changes during 2012.”

So it’s unlikely we’ll see all the big ITV dramas being dumped again this year. But 2011 has already seen STV cut back on the amount of shows produced for itself at Central Quay. With the demise of Friday Night Football, and The Hour, the only notable new arrival in the schedules this year has been Scotland Tonight which - after a shaky start - has like much of STV’s news output settled into a impressive groove, stealing a lot of Newsnicht’s thunder this side of Hadrian’s Wall.

But outside of its news content, there doesn’t seem to be a lot STV is producing for its own viewers which could be dropped into schedules to replace network content right now. With franchise renewal talks looming, and a need to be seen as a broadcaster with its own identity, perhaps we’ll see them producing a few more shows in the vein of Scotland’s Most Middle-of-the-Road Album.

How about The Aye Factor, with John McLaughlin, Michelle McManus, Sharleen Spiteri and Pat Nevin picking the best acts from karaoke night at the Horseshoe? Or Ah’m a Celebrity, with the Krankies hosting Glen Michael and Sean Batty in midgie-eating challenges from Oban?

Or maybe they’ll give a chance to some of the creative talents producing new drama and comedy in Scotland that can’t otherwise find an outlet - projects such as The Crews, an impressive Scottish gangster drama made for a small budget which is now being released weekly online and via YouTube since it couldn’t find a broadcaster. There’s a wealth of talented young programme makers in Scotland desperately looking for a break - surely they’d offer a better use of the schedules than landscape footage and repeats for the Nightshift?

Nostalgia’s a powerful thing, and it’s easy to look back at schedules of yesteryear with an air of ‘oh, it was much better then’. But there’s little doubt that STV of Winter 1992 was a far more Scottish, far more original channel than the one which airs today.

It’d be a bold channel which dumped popular, populist content, and a bolder still broadcaster which did so in favour of creatively challenging, original, homegrown material - particularly in the face of an Anglocentric media catcalling the decision and demanding the restoration of supposed household names. But STV’s shown boldness before - wouldn’t it be nice if they did again?

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.