BBC ALBA to Feature on Freeview

The Gaelic-language digital TV channel, BBC ALBA, is to become available on the free digital TV service, Freeview.

It follows approval by the BBC governing body, the BBC Trust, today as part of a review ordered last year. The channel started broadcasting at 9pm on September 19 two years ago.

The review – which included a public consultation involving over 5000 responses – found, says the BBC Trust, that “BBC ALBA is serving Gaelic speakers well, and is also attracting over four non-Gaelic speakers for every Gaelic speaking viewer”.

Added the BBC Trust, in a statement issued this morning: “The service, run jointly by the BBC and [Scottish Government-funded Gaelic language TV organisation] MG ALBA, is making strong progress towards attracting new speakers to the Gaelic language, with strong links with educational partners.

“The partnership between the BBC and MG ALBA is operating well, and engaging well with the independent [television] production sector – in 2008/9, 74 per cent of the content budget was spent on suppliers outside the BBC.”

But no date has yet been set for BBC ALBA appearing on Freeview; it is for the BBC Executive to decide.

Currently BBC ALBA is available only on Sky 168 and Freesat 110. It’s also available on the BBC iPlayer. But all the BBC radio stations – 13 of them – on Freeview are going to have to make way for BBC ALBA; only in Scotland and only when BBC ALBA is broadcasting, between the hours of 5pm and midnight on weekdays; earlier at the weekend, to allow for sports coverage.

The Trust has asked for efforts to be made, technically, to allow both BBC ALBA and the ‘lost’ radio stations to co-exist. It will cost £50,000 to, technically, put BBC ALBA on to Freeview.

BBC ALBA’s annual content budget is currently £14 million, made up of £4 million from the BBC and £10 million from MG ALBA.

Currently, 170,000 people watch BBC ALBA for a minimum 15 minutes per week. There is a target 250,000, but with no specific timeframe set, except the hope it is achieved by the end of next year.

The Trust ruled out other carriage services for BBC ALBA, to make it available outside Scotland.

Explained the Trust: “On Freeview carriage, the BBC Executive explored and ruled out a range of possibilities for making BBC ALBA more widely available. For example, buying spectrum was ruled out due to the prohibitive cost. The removal of a red button stream or BBC Parliament from Freeview was also ruled out due to the likely loss of significant public value. Distributing BBC ALBA on broadband as an alternative to Freeview was ruled out due to relatively low broadband take-up and slow broadband speeds in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Islands.”

National Trustee for Scotland, Jeremy Peat, is quoted in the statement, saying: “It’s very encouraging to see that BBC ALBA is performing well and is appreciated by Gaelic speakers and learners. Carrying ALBA on Freeview will bring the service to a much wider audience across Scotland – it’s been clear from our review that there are strong views about the future of the service and this has not been a straightforward decision, but we believe that it’s the option that really offers the most benefit for licence fee payers in Scotland.”

But, continued the Trust statement: “The Trust also highlighted in its conclusions the importance of ensuring that programme quality on BBC ALBA continues to be kept high, as the amount of original programme stock, available from MG ALBA at launch, is declining over time as it is broadcast.

“The Trust has asked the [BBC] Executive to consider whether its existing budget is sufficient for BBC ALBA to continue to meet its objectives, and has highlighted that it expects to see viewing levels and awareness of the service increase over time, with further progress towards the channel’s target of 250,000 viewers.”

During a conference telephone call with members of the media, Peat said: “As far as the timeframe is concerned, [the BBC Trust] will be reviewing the BBC ALBA service licence once every five years, as per every channel, but clearly the BBC Trust will be monitoring the take-up over the next 12 months particularly carefully, and looking to see whether the service is achieving the increase in viewers that is anticipated by the move to Freeview.”

The BBC Executive is understood to be continuing to speak to Virgin Media about whether BBC ALBA should appear on its platform.

The chair of MG ALBA, Alasdair Morrison, welcomed the decision. In a statement, he said: “We are absolutely delighted by the decision and most importantly it will provide the opportunity for people across Scotland to have access to the channel that they have been unable to enjoy to date.

“Over the last two years BBC ALBA has done everything that was asked of it and we have created a raft of home-grown programmes appealing to both Gaelic and non-Gaelic speakers which has made a very positive contribution to Scottish broadcasting and the country’s creative industries. The viewers like what they see and viewing figures have remained steady around 220,000 per week which compares very favourably with other digital channels in Scotland.

“Until now, less than 50 per cent of households in Scotland had access to the channel. Now that barrier has been removed it means households across Scotland will be in a position to take advantage of the variety of programmes that viewers in Scotland have found attractive.

“We would like to bring absolute clarity to the issue of the effect on radio services in view of BBC ALBA being made available on Freeview. First and foremost Freeview is a television platform on airwaves set aside for digital television services. Radio stations were first carried on Freeview when demand for television programming on the service was much lower. That is no longer the case. Freeview is now the UK's main television platform. There are separate arrangements for digital radio and the development of that service is where the long term solution to radio lies.

“Secondly the BBC Executive estimates that the effect of removing some radio stations from Freeview will only affect in the region of 4000 people who would have no radio-based access to the radio services and of which 2500 can get access to digital radio via the internet.

“Thirdly the vast majority of the 51,000 who listen to radio on Freeview in fact are listening to FM/AM stations. These and all other stations will continue to be available on FM/AM and DAB radio frequencies where the overwhelming majority of people listen to radio. The radio stations are also available online and through Freesat and Sky TV and cable.

“We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the political parties across Scotland for their overwhelming support for the channel throughout our Freeview campaign as well as the many organisations and individuals who have supported us. In addition thanks also go to the BBC Management for their encouragement, as well as Jeremy Peat Trustee for Scotland at the BBC Trust. We look forward to bringing our service to a wider audience throughout the country.”

Scottish Government Culture Minister, Fiona Hyslop, also welcomed the decision. In a statement, she is quoted saying: ”This is the right decision by the BBC Trust and fitting recognition of the achievements and progress made by BBC ALBA.

“BBC ALBA has secured its position as a major player in Scotland’s broadcasting sector. The channel has given the industry a welcome boost creating jobs, retaining skills and becoming responsible for more than half of the content commissioned from Scotland’s independent producers. It is all the more welcome that much of the economic impact of BBC Alba is being felt in areas of low population.

“This is a good day for the Gaelic language. BBC ALBA’s commitment to Gaelic learning means the decision to broaden the reach of the channel will increase opportunities for Gaelic learners. This will make a significant contribution to our aim of securing the future of the language through creation of a new generation of Gaelic speakers.”

But she added: “The Scottish Government provides funding of more than £12 million to MG ALBA, yet UK Ministers remain responsible for approving appointments to the organisation’s board. This situation is clearly unsustainable and remains one of the anomalies of the current devolution settlement. The opportunity exists for this democratic responsibility to transfer to Scottish Ministers by including it in the Scotland Bill currently undergoing scrutiny in the Scottish Parliament.”

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