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Speaking our Language: An interview with BBC ALBA (Part One)
Today, 19 September 2012, marks the fourth anniversary of the launch of Scotland's Gaelic-language television channel, BBC ALBA.
Launched in 2008, the channel was set-up to provide regular programming for Scotland’s estimated 90,000 Gaelic-speaking population while reaching a wider audience of English speaking viewers. BBC ALBA now attracts a weekly audience in excess of 500,000 per week, plus over 50,000 iPlayer weekly hits.
In part one of a two part interview, I talk to BBC ALBA’s Head of Service, Margaret Mary Murray, and its Head of Content, Alan Esslemont, about the channel's origins, remit and audience.
Jonathan Melville: Can you tell me about the early days of BBC ALBA, how did the channel come into existence?
Margaret Mary Murray (MMM): A partnership was formed between the BBC and MG ALBA in 2007 for the purpose of setting up a new Gaelic television channel. That proposal had to go through a Public Value Test because it was being part-funded by the BBC and the licence fee, so the BBC had to be convinced that the proposition was going to deliver value back to the licence fee payer.
When the BBC Trust and MG ALBA came together the agreement was to do something quite different in Gaelic broadcasting terms. Prior to 2008, Gaelic had either been part of the schedule on BBC One or Two or on STV schedule, part of a mainstream schedule. It was targeting the core Gaelic audience and any passing traffic. However the Trust gave us quite a challenging audience target when we first launched, we were asked to aim to reach a quarter of a million people every week.
Initially it only launched on digital satellite, Sky and Freesat, and the following years were spent making sure people were watching it, that it was popular and that we were delivering to the audience sufficiently so that we would be allowed to go onto Freeview. We went onto Freeview in 2011 and that was the first time everyone in Scotland could see the channel free-to-air. Since we went onto Freeview the audience has risen to around half a million every week.
Given that there are only 90,000 Gaelic speakers you need quite a different strategy that will satisfy the core Gaelic audience but which reaches out to communities across Scotland.
Alan Esslemont: I work for MG ALBA and we've funded of a lot of Gaelic programming since 1992, under different names. The strategy we have is about using the funds for the minority language to make sure the core audience is served while being aware that the only way Gaelic will thrive is through support from the majority language.
By putting on programming that attracts the majority language you're able to do both of those things and make progress. Gaelic speakers use BBC ALBA in a different way than non-Gaelic speakers, they'll use us in the same way an English speaker will use BBC One or ITV1. The core things of news, drama and entertainment are what Gaelic speakers will come to us for and non-Gaelic speakers are attracted by documentaries, music and sport.
Where are the BBC ALBA offices located?
MMM: We have a virtual set-up. I'm based in Glasgow and Alan comes from Ireland every week and spends some time here at the beginning and end of the week, with the most of his time spent in Stornoway. MG ALBA's headquarters are based in Stornoway.
AE: All of the presentation you see between the programmes is created in Stornoway. All of the technical checking of programmes is also done in Stornoway. We have various sides to the company, with the editorial team and the finance team and there's a technical team who work closely the team in Glasgow, which is where the channel is broadcast from.
It's unusual to have a virtual partnership working like this. We've come together to use the best part of each side and there's no corporate identity but we feel we've got a lot more out of it than if we'd have been working on our own. We're happy that we've created a strong partnership. We also spent time with other Gaelic bodies to set up an education website, LearnGaelic.net. By working together we've provided a focus for other Gaelic groups to see that we've done a lot more together than we would have separately and I think we're quite proud of that.
How large is the team?
MMM: We have a team of around nine people. There are four commissioning editors, I work for the BBC and I have another service editor from the BBC. There's also Alan from MG ALBA and we have another commissioning editor from there.
We work across all content and to support us we have a scheduler and a scheduling assistant. We have a promos producer, a finance executive and a marketing manager. We also have an in-vision presenter. We thought it was something important, because we were new, to make a human connection with our audience, and Fiona, our continuity presenter, is also our team assistant so she takes notes at our meetings, makes tea and coffee and runs around to front of camera and does the presentation!
We have a very small team for a channel operation and all of us are multi-skilled. I'm called Head of Service because in Gaelic broadcasting we also have a radio service, Radio Nan Gaidheal, and I'm also responsible for that.
BBC ALBA's The Grounds
What sort of programme does a Gaelic viewer want that they can't get elsewhere?
MMM: There are certain culturally specific programmes that are relevant to Gaelic speakers, as well as having programmes for children going through Gaelic education that support the work going on in the world of education and the arts, supporting the use of the language.
Some of our entertainment series are of absolute interest to the Gaelic audience but also of a wider interest to a Scottish audience. There are many examples, such as Eòrpa, developed as vehicle to telling stories of interest and relevance, irrespective of their origin within Europe. That began in 1992, a unique programme that's of value to a wider audience because nobody else is doing that kind of current affairs investigation in Scotland or elsewhere.
A number of programmes work for both audiences. If we screen a programme not in Gaelic there has to be some sort of tie. For example we screened the Ealing film, The Maggie. We have films every now and again if there's a gap. We'll go looking for documentaries or films we want to schedule such as The Maggie, Ring of Bright Water, Battle of the Sexes, things that are Scottish with a Highland resonance that originated in the English language. We also showed Whisky Galore around the anniversary. We're currently working on a documentary following the refurbishment of a puffer.
Why do non-Gaelic speakers come to BBC ALBA?
MMM: We have unique content and we try to keep the language threshold as low as possible. Apart from English-language programming, the three areas where we bring in non-Gaelic speakers tend to be music, sport and documentary.
We have a niche in prime time for Scottish traditional music that nobody else is doing. Our sport tends to be unique, so if it's live rugby from the pro-12 you'll only find it on BBC ALBA in Scotland. We do the SPL, we don't have the money to do it live but we do it deferred at 5.30 on a Saturday afternoon. We also do a wide variety of documentary in prime time and we broadcast with subtitles.
Since we've gone onto Freeview a lot of people have discovered us, they've come for one thing and become regular viewers. In general people know it's not a channel solely for Gaels.
Has the scheduling policy changed over the years, in response to what you thought people wanted to what they actually watched?
MMM: Because we have a full seven hour schedule, from 5pm until midnight, we have an arena to aim to satisfy different audiences. For example, from 5pm through to 7pm it's a 100% Gaelic zone, for children from pre-school to age 12 or 13 with no subtitles also parents with a level of fluency use these programmes.
From 7pm to 8pm we run programmes aimed at people learning the language. We have an archive series called Speaking Our Language which we've run since the beginning and we run quite a lot of archive programming from STV's Gaelic archive.
From 8pm it's our news, the only Gaelic TV news programme and it's probably our most popular programme with the Gaelic audience. At around 9pm we have a much more open door policy with documentaries, entertainment programmes and quite a lot of our music programming is post-9pm.
The way we zone the schedule means that if you know what you're interested in you'll probably find it in a regular slot within the channel. We've had this two pole strategy all the way along, we know that the service, at its core, must satisfy Gaelic speakers and learners. If it doesn't there's absolutely no point in doing it, so that's what drives the core of the schedule. We've also got audience targets that mean we must be of interest or value, or both, to a wider audience and we try to do that through documentary, music and sport.
On the publicity side, how much coverage do you receive from listings magazines and newspapers?
MMM: Freeview has been a watershed for us. Some newspapers didn't carry our listings until recently, which is a big problem, but all of the Scottish newspapers now carry us. When we were on satellite only we were on 168 on Sky and now we're number 8 on Freeview, There's always been an interest in BBC ALBA but I think some of the debate was on why there should be a channel rather than what's on the channel. Recently, what's on has taken over from why, and that's a really important step, to be seen as a part of the normal media offering in Scotland.
AE: The change reflects the viewership who are contacting the papers to ask why aren't they carrying our listings. We have certain hooks that bring in a Scotland-wide audience, such as documentaries on Michelle McManus and Kenny Dalglish. We also had a documentary on Patsy Cline, which sets people thinking about the connections, but for us it fits the strategy. What has happened is that a lot of people who thought we weren't for them are thinking we could be for them once a week.
Final Frontier, an episode of documentary series Soillse
I grew up with access to Gaelic news bulletins on Grampian TV, learning snippets of the language such as “Feasgar math” (Good evening). Does the growth in Gaelic education mean you have more work to do in supporting learning of the language?
MMM: Through our existence as a TV channel it immediately raises an awareness of the language to a larger population and it also challenges pre-conceptions that it may be old-fashioned or twee. Much of what we do has quite a young image and it is a living language. It gives the language a status that it hasn't had before. In terms of brand awareness, 82% of people in Scotland are now aware of BBC ALBA and of Gaelic as a result, and that can only be positive in terms of people’s attitudes to the language.
To go back to the process we went through in measuring people’s thoughts on whether this would be a good way to spend the licence fee, in 2007 we asked about attitudes to Gaelic and roughly the population was split into thirds. One third recognised Gaelic's existence but said it definitely wasn't for them. One third were slightly warmer, acknowledging its existence but saying it still wasn't really for them. Finally, a third valued the place of Gaelic within modern Scotland.
What would be good is if we can nibble at the edges of each third, so that the number people who totally reject the language, through more awareness and exposure to the language, is reduced and more people come to that middle Scotland. Even if it's just what you did there, by saying “Feasgar math”. It's about letting people see that it might be different to what they think it is.
In Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness there are Gaelic language schools in the centre of large populations and these schools are full of children from a non-Gaelic background who are embracing the language and their parents are making a conscious decision to learn the language. We hope that television being a thoroughly modern medium will impact on awareness and that people will help in the way people perceive the language in Scotland.
AE: There is a difference between programmes on someone else's channel and a standalone TV channel. A separate channel gives status to the language. Gaelic has Scotland's only standalone television station at present, we're the only one that schedules from the start to the end of the schedule, we put all the programmes in, so there's a status with that.
Also, by putting Gaelic in situations people deem “normal”, such as a commentary on a Scottish Premier League match, means the Gaelic community begin to see their language as a normal part of the setup in Scotland and the wider population see Gaelic as a normal part of what goes on in the Scottish media.
This idea of normalisation is quite powerful in making sure the language continues both within the core communities and with those who decide to send their children to Gaelic medium schools. Those are externalities and not our core job but there's no doubt that it does work and if you look to both Ireland and Wales who are both well ahead of us in both respects, it's key to the growth of the language.
In the second part of this interview we discuss the type of programmes that make up the BBC ALBA schedule and what’s coming up this Autumn on the channel.
Visit the BBC ALBA website for details of their current schedule.
BBC ALBA is now available on the following platforms:
Freeview channel 8
Virgin Media channel 188
Sky channel 168
Freesat channel 110
Live on BBC iPlayer