BBC Alba chiefs demand review of £20m funding deal to tackle 'second-rate' service for Gaelic viewers

The cast of the hit BBC Alba show Bannan, which is made on the Isle of Skye.The cast of the hit BBC Alba show Bannan, which is made on the Isle of Skye.
The cast of the hit BBC Alba show Bannan, which is made on the Isle of Skye.
Gaelic television viewers in Scotland are being saddled with a "second-rate" service amid claims BBC Alba has lost out in the wake of the launch of the new channel north of the border.

Operators MG Alba are demanding an "urgent" review of its £20 million support from the BBC and government to secure its long-term future for the next decade and end its reliance on repeats to fill three quarters of its schedules.

They are arguing for BBC Alba to secure a funding settlement which lasts to the end of the current BBC Charter in 2027.

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Senior figures says the quota stands in "stark contrast" to the commitment from the BBC that no more than half of the content on the channel launched earlier this year will be repeats.

MG Alba also claims the channel, which was launched 10 years ago, is "technically disadvantaged" in comparison to other public service channels because its shows are broadcast in a poorer picture quality.

The BBC announced £40 million in new funding for Scottish content in 2017, when it unveiled plans for the new channel, which launched in February of this year with a £32 million budget.

Writing in MG Alba's annual review, chair Allan MacDonald said: "The overall framework for Gaelic media provision urgently needs to be reviewed and invigorated.

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"The existing funding settlement, which has no long-term security, will not be sufficient to meet the public service rights of those we serve or to fully address the challenges ahead of us.

"Even as it currently stands, it is only capable of sustaining 25 per cent of the schedule as first-run programmes. This is in stark contrast to the new BBC Scotland channel to which the BBC has made a commitment that no more than 50 per cent of its output will comprise of repeats.

"We invite the BBC, Ofcom, the Scottish Government and the UK Government to engage in a dialogue aimed at reaching a new settlement for Gaelic broadcasting.

"The licence fee settlement for the BBC is venture capital for the nation’s culture. As part of our engagement, we will encourage the BBC to be open and transparent about the principles and protocol on which it bases its allocation of resources to Gaelic broadcasting, and how it ensures parity of approach between the indigenous minority languages which are part of its overall cultural responsibility across the UK."

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Mr MacDonald suggested the BBC had yet to deliver on a pledge made two years to ensure BBC Alba had enough resources to deliver an additional 100 hours of programming each year.

He added: "It is disappointing that after 10 years of success in programme-making, BBC ALBA remains technically disadvantaged in that it is broadcast with lower picture quality than other public service channels.

"There is no acceptable basis for Gaelic speaking viewers to have a second-class service.

"Audiences of the future, particularly younger audiences who are increasingly accessing content on non-linear platforms, will expect to find their content and engage with it in ways that are technologically enabled.

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"With BBC ALBA having celebrated 10 successful years in September 2018, it is evident that the work that lies ahead will be greater than that which has already been accomplished.

"With the BBC, we must address the challenges of discoverability of Gaelic media content, so that our content is more easily and more frequently surfaced than is currently the case.

"In that context, it is a source of disappointment that iPlayer viewings have continued to diminish while there has been impressive growth of Gaelic short-form content viewing on social media platforms."

MG Alba chief executive Donald Campbell said: "This year saw the first co-commission between the two channels BBC Scotland and BBC ALBA, which will result in Solus Productions creating Gaelic and English content on the same core theme for the autumn schedules of both channels.

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"Unfortunately, viewers will notice a significant difference in picture quality between the English-language and the Gaelic language programmes, with the new BBC Scotland channel broadcasting in high definition (HD) and BBC ALBA in standard definition (SD). We will continue to press the BBC to provide HD broadcast for BBC ALBA."

Margaret Mary Murray, BBC Scotland’s head of Gaelic services, said: “Having celebrated its first decade only last year, BBC ALBA is continuing to make great strides for its audience. In the last year alone, news programme An Là has been extended into the weekend, a deal has been struck with CBeebies and CBBC, which has substantially increased the amount of original Gaelic children’s content on the channel and, more recently, BBC ALBA won four awards across a range of genres including comedy and sport at the Royal Television Society Awards Scotland.

“We are ambitious for the service and, working in partnership with MG ALBA, we look forward to participating in dialogue about its on-going development.”

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said: "We are a strong supporter of BBC ALBA and have been a principal funder of the channel since its launch.

“We recognise the points made in the MG ALBA annual report and are fully supportive of the request for dialogue. We would be happy to participate in a review along with other parties.”