Why BBC Scotland’s The Nine often hooks only 9,000 viewers
The digital channel hasn’t served up much guid entertainment since it was launched almost two and a half years ago. But its bosses certainly did when they were quizzed by a Commons committee earlier this week. BBC Scotland’s director, an Ulsterman called Steve Carson, was funnier than Frank Carson when he told Scottish MPs it was doing “fantastically well” and “has exceeded the expectations and the targets set for it.” The best line, though, came from the head of news and current affairs at Glasgow’s Pacific Quay when he pretended to be “very pleased” with the viewing figures for the channel’s flagship news programme.
According to Gary Smith, the audience tuning into the hour-long show is “on average 20,000”. We should always be suspicious when people in positions of authority invoke averages which just happen to to be impressive round figures like 20,000. The reality is that The Nine struggles to pull in 9,000 viewers some nights. To put these paltry ratings in perspective, the producers of STV’s Scotland Tonight – which goes out at 10.30pm – would be disappointed with fewer than 90,000 viewers. It gets substantially more than that sometimes. Mr Smith’s excuse that these two shows cannot be compared because The Nine goes out on a digital channel was worse than lame. The Nine gets relentlessly plugged on Reporting Scotland. The problem is its “top stories” are too bland to hook many viewers. Almost everyone across Scotland shuns it night after night.
BBC Scotland’s news chief also stated to the Scottish Affairs Committee during its virtual session: “The impact of our journalism spreads far beyond the programme.” Really? I’d love to have watched him try to reel off all the memorable scoops The Nine has generated in all the editions of the show that have been transmitted to date. I’m talking about items or interviews that led to coverage beyond the BBC (which increasingly recycles its own material ad nausea on other TV and radio news programmes). Very few soundbites, never mind stories, assembled by his news team are seized upon by the Scottish press (and the semi-dead legacy media is ravenous for any free leads it can get these days).
Gary Smith made much of the fact that the main anchor of The Nine has branched out into presenting on other channels, such as BBC One. No doubt the main reason Martin Geissler is moonlighting is because he must be utterly demoralised presenting to next-to-no viewers on the BBC Scotland channel. And why wouldn’t he be? Talking to yourself repeatedly in public can get you sectioned eventually.
At other points in the appallingly low resolution proceedings on the BBC Parliament channel, Mr Smith stated:
The Nine itself, I personally think, is a really good programme. That is what I hear from most people who do watch. The fact that we have an hour to get properly under the skin of stories and to do interviews around stories to make it more current affairs as news. I think it does a very good job there.
The Nine has taken risks with its journalism, to tell stories in different ways and to do different kinds of stories, which previously in a more limited format we weren’t able to do.
Again, really? How many risks has this pusillanimous programme taken in holding the Scottish Government to proper account? When did any broadcast journalist within BBC Scotland ever subject Nicola Sturgeon – or any member of her dopey Cabinet – to the sort of intense interrogation they might receive from Andrew Neil or Kirsty Wark? Can anyone at Pacific Quay point to any seismic or agenda setting material it transmitted throughout the whole Salmondgate saga? Why did it take an Englishman from Newsnight, Lewis Goodall, to extract from Angus Robertson his stark admission that what “really matters” when it comes to Covid in Scotland is public opinion? And why wasn’t that astonishing soundbite followed up by any of Mr Goodall’s colleagues at BBC Scotland?
If news is something that someone somewhere wants suppressed, The Nine almost never comes anywhere close to being a real news show. It is more like a Scottish version of The One Show. Yet it is allocated a full-hour of airtime five nights every week. More than enough time to be what Mr Smith absurdly claims it is (but clearly isn’t) – a current affairs, as well as a news, programme.
He went on to say it is enabling BBC Scotland to groom new on-air talent. In other words, this supposed flagship news programme is now serving as a training camp for rookie presenters and reporters. The thinking behind this: just try them out on The Nine because if they screw up live on air, next to no one will see it.
If these trainees want to sharpen up their interrogation skills, I suggest they book some sessions with the Scottish Tory leader, who made Mr Smith squirm on his seat a few times. Douglas Ross was certainly a lot tougher on him than his Conservative colleague, Andrew Bowie. Mind you, the member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine appears to be only about 14-years-old (see above). So we shouldn’t be too hard on him, even though he burned up valuable cross-examination time bowling softballs at Mr Smith. His main question was what BBC Scotland is doing to protect journalists at the station who are subjected to “abhorrent abuse” on social media. The reply:
If the abuse gets to a certain level we will report it to the police. That doesn’t happen too often but there are some occasions when it’s significant enough to go to the police. We’ll sometimes report the platform which is putting stuff out that really shouldn’t be put out.
Stuff that really shouldn’t be put out? What a spot-on description of The Nine (and much else that gets inflicted on us by the BBC Scotland channel). This “flagship news programme” is a digital damp squib, a nightly non-event, in short a complete waste of the compulsory tube tax we’re compelled to pay. Its lack of journalistic incisiveness and impact should cause both Gary Smith and Steve Carson acute shame and embarrassment. But it won’t. Along with legions of other monstrously overpaid apparatchiks at the British state broadcasting corporation, this pair are all too comfortable relaxing in the first class compartment of the great, long BBC gravy train.