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Opportunities for Broadcasting - Taking forward our National Conversation

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4 Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

Chapter Summary

  • Greater autonomy in broadcasting policy would give Scotland an opportunity to set priorities which are specifically attuned to the needs of viewers in Scotland.
  • It is envisaged that the existing assets and staff of BBC Scotland would form the basis for a Scottish national broadcaster.
  • A key challenge, in establishing new operational arrangements for broadcasting in Scotland, would be to retain the best elements of the existing UK broadcasting system while allowing for a greater level of programming which reflects Scottish life.

4.1. Independence would transform the broadcasting environment in Scotland. It would prompt a reassessment of the role of "national" public service broadcasters; the television licence fee; and the regulation of the electro-magnetic spectrum.

4.2. It is certain that the principles which underpin national broadcasting would be retained. In particular, an independent Scotland would recognise the central importance to democratic life of independence and impartiality in broadcasting. Broadcasting institutions, including those publicly funded, would therefore have their independence safeguarded, and the regulatory and licensing arrangements put in place for broadcasting would safeguard broadcasters' independence.

4.3. This paper sets out the opportunities for the Scottish broadcasting sector and how it can overcome the current challenges. It provides a basis for further discussion and debate about the impact of independence on this key area of national life which has a clear cultural, economic and democratic impact.

4.4. It is clear that viewers in Scotland will wish to retain access to the broadcasting services that they value and would not wish to suffer a reduction in choice or quality of programming as a result of any changes to broadcasting regulation and operation. We therefore are clear that a Scottish Government would aim to enhance the broadcasting services available to people in Scotland by establishing new Scottish broadcasting institutions while retaining the availability of the main UK broadcasters.

4.5. Greater autonomy in broadcasting policy would give Scotland an opportunity to set priorities which are specifically attuned to the needs of viewers in Scotland. For example, it would allow Scotland, if it so chose, to:

  • Ensure a true choice of public service broadcasting content by establishing a digital network as a source of competition to the chief public service broadcaster in Scotland;
  • Decide its own priorities in relation to those national events which must be shown on free to air television. At present, no such protection exists for the World Cup or European Championship qualifying matches played by the Scottish men's or women's football teams.
  • Develop and strengthen the television production base and use such activity to enhance incoming film production as well, possibly by the use of tax credits.
  • Seek to build a range of services including a strengthened Gaelic service.
  • Look to establish new media links, including synthesising content across platforms.

4.6. Independence would provide Scotland with the full range of powers needed to develop its broadcasting and television production industries. For example tax credits for television and film production have been used in a range of countries around the world to encourage the screen industries 28.

Regulation

4.7. In common with virtually all other European countries, Scotland would need to have a mechanism for regulating broadcasting and assigning licences for broadcasting operators. This could, in essence, be a Scottish version of Ofcom (although many other countries, such as Ireland, maintain separate regulators for broadcasting licences and telecommunications).

4.8. Any separate Scottish broadcasting regulator would have to adhere to European regulations on the use of spectrum - just as Ofcom does at present. Where appropriate, however, a Scottish regulator could prioritise some issues of specific relevance to Scotland. This could include making additional spectrum available for local television, for example.

The BBC

4.9. The future of the BBC and the licence fee revenue raised within Scotland would be a major consideration in the move to an independent Scotland. It is envisaged that the existing assets, staff and expertise of BBC Scotland would be used as the basis of a Scottish national broadcaster, along with an appropriate share of the BBC's other assets, including its commercial activities.

4.10. This could be funded either by the television licence fee; a broader media licence fee (equivalent to that payable in Denmark 29); or general taxation, industry levies or commercial revenues. Many European countries use a mixed system whereby both advertising revenues and a licence fee help to fund their chief public service broadcasting institution.

4.11. One obvious example of this is Ireland (which has a lower population than Scotland) where the RTE service supports two television channels, three radio stations and five performing groups through a mixture of a licence fee (which in 2008 was 160 euros per household) and advertising revenues. RTE's total income in 2007 was 441m euros (245.7m euros from advertising revenue and 195.7m euros from licence fee revenue) 30. Scotland's estimated level of licence fee revenue in 2008-09 would be equivalent to 335m euros 31. Irish viewers can also, of course, access BBC channels from the UK and a range of channels on other platforms, just as Scottish viewers in an independent Scotland would do.

4.12. A mixed funding model such as this could be an option for Scotland, although maintaining a public service broadcasting institution solely from licence fees would also be possible, and more in keeping with the prevailing ethos.

Channel 3

4.13. Under independence, there would almost certainly be an end to the current anomaly whereby viewers in the south of Scotland are served by a trans-border licence. It is likely that there would be a single nationwide licence for what is currently Channel 3. It would be open to stv, as current holder of the other two licences in Scotland whether it wished to secure that single Channel 3 licence. Alternatively, Scotland could reflect the previous regional principle for Channel 3 and make several licences available - for example, maintaining the two stv licences and creating a new licence for the Scottish Borders; or re-drawing the map altogether.

4.14. The Channel 3 licence holder could remain as a commercially funded broadcaster, although (as is currently the case) its public service commitments could be minimal. These commitments would reflect the difficulty of competing successfully for advertisers in a multi-channel environment. One possible point of comparison is TV3 in Ireland. TV3 makes some of its own programmes, but also purchases a large number of ITV programmes (it also purchases programmes from the BBC and Channel 4, as well as American broadcasters). Under this scenario, Channel 3 in Scotland would of course need to negotiate to purchase the rights for programmes from broadcasters in the UK and other countries, rather than receiving programmes as part of a franchising agreement with ITVplc. In many respects, this could lead to a more stable and less problematic purchasing relationship between Scotland's channel 3 and other broadcasters than currently exists between stv and the ITV network. Of course, as with the BBC, once digital television is available to all, viewers in Scotland would be able to access ITV channels on other platforms.

Channel 4 and five

4.15. It would be possible for Channel 4 to remain as a cross-border institution, subject to appropriate memoranda of understanding over its control being agreed between the UK Government and the Scottish Government.

4.16. Five would likely remain as a private company and would continue to be available to Scottish viewers through Freeview.

Freeview

4.17. Viewers in Scotland value the choice of channels which Freeview makes available to them. Any Government of an independent Scotland would want to take steps to ensure that a similar choice continues to be made available to viewers in an independent Scotland. This would require negotiations with DTV Services (the company which manages Freeview, which is owned by the BBC, ITVplc, Channel 4, BSkyB and Arqiva). It would of course be important to ensure that the availability of Freeview services did not deny spectrum space to new broadcasting institutions created as a result of independence, and this might also need to be a matter for negotiation with DTV Services.

Satellite and Cable Television services

4.18. No changes to these services would arise as a result of independence, and they would continue to provide a vast choice of channels to the growing proportion of the population who receive them. In addition, as for other commercial enterprises and businesses, an independent Scotland would be an attractive place for satellite and cable organisations/companies to relocate to and the current London-centricity of the broadcasting industry might be diminished.

Radio

4.19. An independent Scotland would continue to offer a market for commercial radio stations which account for a large proportion of Scottish radio listening. In addition, a national broadcasting institution - envisaged to be formed from existing assets and staff at BBC Scotland - would continue the functions currently undertaken by the BBC in relation to Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidheal. BBC network stations are less popular in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK, but still account for 37% of listener hours at present 32. A Scottish Government would have the option of ensuring that these services continued to be available on FM frequencies and on Digital Audio Broadcasting, in addition to being available on Freeview and over the internet.

Broadcasting industries

4.20. Research commissioned for the Scottish Broadcasting Commission found that the broadcasting industry in Scotland has a direct impact on the economy of £111m, and employs 2,400 people (including freelance crew members, but excluding BSkyB's customer sales staff). Scottish Enterprise estimated in February 2009 that the industry has the potential to almost double in size by the end of 2012 33. This figure was a best case estimate, which depended upon the establishment of a Scottish Digital Network, as well as increases in production from the BBC and Channel 4.

4.21. One consequence of having autonomous broadcasting organisations based in Scotland is that it would increase the likelihood of the licence fee money and advertising revenue earned in Scotland being spent on Scottish programming. Broadcasters which are permanently based in Scotland would be more likely than the current arrangements to commission programmes from production companies based in Scotland. The establishment of BBC Alba has shown how even a relatively small intervention can benefit such companies. In addition, Scottish production companies could still pitch for programmes with UK commissioners and might be better placed to compete in wider overseas markets.

4.22. It would also be an option to use tax incentives to encourage the broadcasting and screen industries. This policy has had a positive impact in countries such as Canada and Ireland 34. Such incentives potentially be a powerful tool for encouraging growth in the broadcasting sector and the wider creative industries.