Radio (Silence) Free Scotland
In amongst Alex Salmond’s verbal sparring and to-and-fro debate with Jeremy Paxman during last week, a little titbit of news slipped out which should have made the nation’s media operators sit up with alarm.
Talking about the BBC, the First Minister told Newsnight’s very own Cyril Sneer:
"We'll watch it on the same basis as the Irish Republic but we shall pay for BBC programmes in the same way as we'll contribute to buy anything else which we choose to watch. We'll have a licence fee to set up a Scottish Broadcasting Channel and I'm quite certain we'll be wanting purchase from the BBC.”
A licence fee to set up a Scottish Broadcasting Channel? Now, would this be on top of the £75m a year the Scottish Government currently plans to topslice from the BBC to fund and sustain the proposed Scottish Digital Network, or instead of it?
It’s a question which, with much of the SDN plans, has been answered in only sketchy terms. And that ambiguity has potentially serious ramifications - not just for Scotland’s media platforms but also for those who depend on them.
For an example, what about sporting rights? Sky and ESPN recently renewed their deal for live coverage of the SPL until season 2016/17 - which would take it a year beyond the proposed date of Scottish independence if the referendum 900-odd days hence goes the SNP’s way.
Would Sky’s broadcast footprint be permitted to cover an independent Scotland? Would subscription packages have to change to take account of independence? What about highlights - the BBC currently has the rights, but would there be any value in renewing them in the next set of contract rights should the BBC not be available in post-independence Scotland?
If not, would STV or whatever acronym the new Scottish Broadcasting Channel Salmond talks of be in a position financially to pick up said rights? Would they even want them? And if not, what impact would a lack of regular terrestrial rights have on revenue for clubs? On sponsorship?
Likewise the Six Nations - the BBC has the rights for those matches until 2017, meaning a potential blackout of the first tournament post-independence.
Would an independent Scottish Government change the rules on the so-called ‘crown jewels’ of sports broadcasting? Alex Salmond has talked loudly and often of his wish to see Scotland international matches shown live on free-to-air TV. In theory, moving Hampden matches onto that crown jewels list would ensure more people could see them, but would the rights have the same value without Sky bidding? Could the SFA cope with a subsequent loss in revenue?
These might seem like questions for a long way down the road, but the cyclical nature of TV deals and rights packages means these debates will already be taking place in boardrooms and broadcasters up and down the land.
The impact of independence on the Scottish media is a fascinating area for debate, both in hypothetical areas such as the sports issue above, and in more practical considerations. What, for instance, would be the fate of the nation’s radio spectrum, or of BBC Scotland, if the nation votes for independence?
Blair Jenkins’ recommendations on the future of Scottish broadcasting and the proposed Scottish Digital Network are, as I’ve mentioned before on these pages, almost wholly grounded in the medium of television. Yet we’re a nation of radio listeners too - both commercial and state. Holyrood has yet to indicate how the wireless would run. Would the SDN extend to include its own radio service? Would we get Radio Free Scotland - and if so, how would it be run?
So far, all we’ve had from those pushing the new digital network is radio silence.
Even the technical infrastructure of radio brings its own headache. DAB has been driven as the digital radio medium of choice in the UK, but many countries around the world have gone further and adopted DAB+, a more advanced digital medium that isn’t backwards compatible with the DAB system used in the UK. Which system would an independent Scottish broadcaster use - the obsolete one widely used, or the more advanced one which hasn’t the audience base in the country?
And then there’s this licence fee the First Minister talks of. Presumably, with a Scottish Broadcasting Channel replacing the BBC north of the border, Scots would be exempt from paying the traditional licence fee. But would the replacement Salmond mentioned in his Paxman interview be set at the same rate? Would it be more expensive? Less? How would it be collected and distributed?
Would the channel be ad-funded, on top of this licence fee and the top-sliced revenue clawed back from the BBC? If so, one would imagine a few nervous shuffles and squeaky bums at STV’s headquarters on the Clyde. Indeed, the potential ramifications of the SDN - independence or not - on the staff at both BBC Scotland (who would largely be redundant) and STV (suddenly facing commercial and creative competition) would be potentially devastating.
That's assuming the new network even draws from local staff. As we've seen, thanks a piece of typical FOI-baiting from the Guardian against the BBC's move to Salford, the majority of the recruitment for Auntie's move to the North West of England came from outwith the M postcode. The launch of a new Scottish channel, state-funded and operated, may spark similar in Scotland.
This blog feels like a list of questions with very few answers. There’s a reason for that - so much of the future of Scottish media remains shrouded in doubt and mystery, not helped by the unfocused nature of the few proposals that have so far been made. Holyrood and the SNP like to bandy figures and sums about in terms of what they think it’ll cost to set up their new TV channel. But what they’ll show on it, how it’ll be watched, and what infrastructure it will exist within remain frustratingly vague - and the need for coherent answers from the powers-that-be will come sooner rather than later.