Since its launch in 2008 the Scottish language television channel, BBC Alba, has spent most of its time relegated to the backwaters of satellite broadcasting (and since May 2011 on one of the cable providers in Scotland). This left it somewhat difficult for the majority of viewers in Scotland to tune in or watch it the station and resulted in a renewed drive by activists for BBC Alba to receive equal treatment with the state-funded English-language channels.
This came to a head with the row over Freeview, Britain’s free-to-air digital television platform (similar to Ireland’s Saorview) which now carries the BBC channels, ITV, Ch4 and others, and from which it seemed BBC Alba might be excluded. However, a hard-fought campaign ensured that the station would join the line-up of digital television channels and what a success that has now proven to be with the transition to Freeview in June resulting in a phenomenal 40% jump in viewership for BBC Alba in just three months.
According to the Scotsman:
‘Gaelic-language TV service BBC Alba has seen its audience soar by at least 100,000 since the channel was made available to viewers in Scotland on Freeview in June, it was claimed yesterday.
The estimated 40 per cent rise in viewing figures came as the Gaelic channel unveiled its schedule of new programmes for the autumn. They include a documentary series on the maternity unit at Raigmore Hospital in Inverness and a series on Highland veterinary surgeons working at the Blair Drummond safari park near Stirling and the Highland Wildlife Park.
Margaret Mary Murray, the head of service for BBC Alba, said official viewing figures on the switch to Freeview would not be made public for three months.
She said: “We are not going to publish our viewing figures until six months have passed. But I can say that we are very encouraged by both the feedback to the channel and also the numbers that we are seeing through our audience research. They reflect a substantial increase.”
“It is very, very encouraging that people find programmes on the channel that are of interest to them and which complement the other channels available in Scotland.”
She went on: “A significant number of viewers are non-Gaelic speakers and what we find is that Gaelic speakers and non-Gaelic speakers view the channel in different ways. Gaelic speakers tune in to BBC Alba primarily for news, current affairs, entertainment and drama… The three subjects that pull non-Gaelic speakers in are documentaries, music programmes and sport.”’
This is all the more remarkable for a channel that survives on a miniscule budget of some 17 million euros a year, a figure dwarfed by the BBC’s total budget of nearly 4 billion euros a year drawn from the television licence fee and government subsidies. Even against other so-called ‘minority’ broadcast services the channel fares relatively poorly. The BBC’s Asian Network has an annual budget of nearly 14 million euros while the BBC World Service receives up to 300 million euros each year in government payouts (though in fairness both are currently under review).
The example of BBC Alba shows the need, and demand, for Celtic language media across the Celtic nations and the successes that can come from that.
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