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Television Services (Scotland)

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 18 December 2013

I know people say this at the beginning of Westminster Hall debates, but it is a genuine pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Osborne. We are old friends and old colleagues, and it is good to see you sitting in the Chair for a vital, and hopefully positive, debate.

I hope the Minister will agree that television in Scotland is now in a good place. We had many years of differences, disputes and debates—the Minister can call them what he likes—between ITV and STV, which caused great problems for those who wished to plan the future of television in Scotland. I am glad to say that those problems have been resolved, and the relationship is positive.

I am a great supporter of television media generally, having spent a short time in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport back when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the then Minister with responsibility for film, my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr Clarke). We met a number of people who, through Channel 4 and other production companies, made a great contribution to the UK’s film industry.

I have a positive view of television media, and I was pleased to attend a recent meeting at which ITV said that it is debt free. It is wonderful, in a world in which the banks will rip to shreds people who owe them money, to find that a company such as ITV is debt free. I do not know the financial standing of STV, and I do not seek to discuss that today, but I know it is in a positive mood.

I see STV as the Scottish broadcaster in a devolved nation, and its unique position has now been recognised. Without seeking comment from the Minister, I would say that, as a broadcaster, STV makes a good contribution to Scottish dialogue and to the field of production, which I will not discuss today. We have to recognise STV’s impact on Scotland’s creative industry. There are very few people at the centre, in the production team. STV sucks in, develops, encourages and grows the other independent organisations that are required by television production, which is a very good thing.

The second part of moving forward into Scottish television’s future of broadcasting to a devolved nation is recognising that the various localities in Scotland have differing perspectives on the world. People often look through the prism of the cities in which they live, such as Edinburgh or Glasgow. There are many jokes about the differences, but they are real. I am a west coaster, but I now live near the east coast. My constituents often see things through an Edinburgh-centric prism, and people on the west coast often see the world through a Glasgow-centric prism. The people of Ayrshire complain that others do not recognise the importance of Ayrshire, and they may in fact have a perspective of their own. I would say the same for the local areas around Stirling, the Forth valley and Falkirk.

There is a similar debate in Wales on the role of local television in Wales. In Scotland, I believe the intention is to call for local city television. The question is how we get people who wish to use that new service to recognise and access it. That turns on the question of what will happen in the regions of England. People in England will look at their digital channel list, and their local service will be on the first page at channel 8. The local television service in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and other cities will be at channel 8. People in Wales will use the same channel as people in Scotland, and Welsh colleagues will debate that with the Minister separately.

Scotland is a much bigger landmass with a much more diverse population, and with greater distances between populations. People in Scotland will have to find channel 26 to watch city television—it started off at channel 45—so they will have to wade through online shopping and various baking, cooking and travel programmes to find their local television service. I know that in the longer term, given the way digital is developing, people will design a menu for themselves, which will be a great incentive, but that is not the case at the moment.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate, and I echo his point. He is talking about the issue generally, but in Wales there is a specific problem with the location of the channel. I agree entirely that we need to make local television services as prominent and as near to the top of the list as possible so that people can access local TV.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention but this debate is on television services in Scotland. His point is very well made.

When city television is launched in Scotland it will at first be based in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Because city television is independent—although it is a public service broadcaster—the question will be whether it is viable. Will it have enough users in each area so that advertisers fund the channel properly and allow it to develop correctly? In the future, people might have their own digital menus and the channel will be there for them to use, but at the moment that will not be the case. Obviously we see public service broadcasters in the first 10 channels. I understand that Ofcom has a responsibility to provide “appropriate prominence” to public service broadcasters, and I would define Scottish local television as a public service broadcaster. The first 10 channels include Sky and—no offence to ITV—ITV2, but the public service broadcaster for Scotland will not be found until channel 25 or 26, which seems to me to be inappropriate. There is too much of one thing and not enough of the other. If we really are saying that we want Scottish local television to develop as a recognised public service broadcaster for a devolved nation, not a separate nation—I am totally opposed to the idea of independence—we must recognise it as a public service broadcaster. We should be supporting it, the Minister should be supporting it and Ofcom should be doing whatever it can.

The Minister and Ofcom will say that it is not really in their gift to make one broadcaster give up a channel to another and that it is Digital UK, the operator of the digital terrestrial television platform, that needs to be persuaded or perhaps instructed to do that. I am unsure of the Minister’s powers here, but he may outline their limitations later. I would be happy to hear that his focus and control could be extended, although it may require a change to Acts of Parliament. It is incumbent on the Government to recognise the position of the devolved Scottish Parliament, the aspirations of the Scottish people and the significant contribution that can be made by Scottish television.

I am not criticising BBC Scotland. We do that to its face when we have things to say about its biases, prejudices and lack of use of Members of this Parliament for good, fact-based commentary on matters of political debate in Scotland, but then again every party criticises the public sector broadcaster. The point is that STV gives a different view. We have seen that most people now tune into “Scotland Tonight” on STV and do not necessarily watch “Newsnight Scotland”—or “Newsnicht Scotland” as I pronounce it when it changes from the normal BBC programme—so STV has a particular role to play. Local people would also like to see their news interests on city television, which means that it should be in the first 10 channels.

I want to make some comments about BBC Alba, but I will not criticise it as it is a public sector broadcaster that has a particular position. Of the 90,000 or so Gaelic speakers, I would imagine that those who use BBC Alba would know where it was were it at channel 26, although I am not suggesting that it should be put there. Some of my Gael colleagues say to me that there is something odd about running rugby with Gaelic commentary, because it is not necessarily a natural selection of sport for people in the Gaeldom, who would perhaps rather watch something else. Borderers watching rugby, and even sometimes football, often have to listen to Gaelic commentary, which can be confusing. It may be of interest to the Gaeldom, but not necessarily to others. I am not suggesting that we should push BBC Alba off the first 10 channels in order to include STV city television, but we should seriously look at moving somebody off that first 10 to recognise the role of STV and what will become city television.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making a good case, and I am supportive of his appeal to ensure that we get the matter resolved. The most sensible thing to do would be to move STV to where ITV1 sits, and ITV1 could be moved further down the electronic programme guide. That is the sensible approach. Most people who watch STV want to see it and not ITV in that slot. What is the problem with fixing it that way?

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. I understand that both ITV1 and ITV2 are in the first 10 channels, so we should certainly look at one of them. There is also a question about Sky and whether people want to see it alongside the public sector broadcasters. Should we not have the public sector broadcaster and the local city TV channel, under STV’s banner, in those first 10 channels, rather than Sky? Options are available to the Government, to Ofcom and to Digital UK.

I have said all that I need to say, and I think the Minister has acknowledged that my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan), who sits on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, wants to contribute to the debate.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on the television situation in Scotland. We on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport have been discussing the matter for some considerable time, and the Minister has also spoken to us. It is a big issue for viewers in Scotland.

Public service broadcasting is an important way of supporting local economies and local culture. There is clear evidence that STV is in danger of losing advertising revenue, because advertisers are concerned about it moving to channel 26, 27 or wherever. Investment in UK-originated public service content has declined by some 20% in the past five years, so we need to ensure that we are incentivising local television. As has been mentioned, the electronic programme guide could be used as a lever to encourage further investment, so public service content should be given prominence.

I am also concerned about people with visual impairments. If they have to search through channels in order to access their favourite programmes, that will cause them serious distress.

The feasibility of such services will be jeopardised and more time and resources would have to be spent on making people aware of the new location of channels. Such resources could be better used elsewhere in Scottish television, and there is a danger that money could be spent where it should not have to be. The Communications Act 2003 requires Ofcom to provide “appropriate prominence” to public service broadcasters, such as STV and local TV services. Just yesterday, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee had the opportunity to question the preferred candidate for the chair of Ofcom. While it is doing well at a challenging job, it is somewhat limited in its powers on this issue. Ofcom maintains that it does not hold the power to force a move or to transfer a channel number between broadcasters. Perhaps the Minister could look at giving Ofcom the opportunity or powers to do so.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has the matter under consideration, but there has been a delay in the legislation coming through, which has resulted in STV launching local channels in the new year. That is extremely unhelpful.

I strongly believe in public service broadcasting. STV is a credible organisation on which many people in Scotland depend for their news. To move it to channel 26 would cause great distress among many of our constituents. It beggars belief that a channel that delivers good news programmes and quality programming is being put behind something that sells products on television. I would suggest that people who want to watch teleshopping channels will search anyway, but if someone wants to watch the news or their favourite programme, be it football or even “Coronation Street”, they should be able to know exactly which channel they need to go to. I ask the Minister to clarify where we are and to keep STV either where it is or certainly within the single-digit channel numbers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I want to say at the outset that I regard the views of Ayrshire as very important and they should dominate the tone of this important debate, which I thank the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) for calling. It was good to hear him praise ITV, and I agree that ITV is in a very good place. I do not think that that is related to the fact that its chairman is a former Conservative MP, but that it is debt-free and doing well is something to note. He also praised STV, and I want to say how much I admire its chief executive, Rob Woodward. As a Minister, dealing with such an effective chief executive is good news, because whenever he comes to lobby Ministers, he has a clear and specific aim and does not mess about. He asks for something and gets a straight answer back, so it is good to deal with him. STV is in a good place with its support of independent production.

Despite the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), this is a very Scottish debate, and so much so that the Secretary of State’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod)—my mother lives in her constituency—is in fact from the highlands, which may explain her Conservative perspective. I will try to focus on the Scottish issue.

We all know that the electronic programme guide is the list of TV channels that appears on the screen and is navigated via the remote control. It is important as the gateway to digital TV services. The EPG is regulated by Ofcom under the powers in the Communications Act 2003. We recognise that, with growing convergence, we need to update the approach to regulation of the EPG. That need was reflected in the tone of the speech made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. We and he recognise the importance of certainty in the EPG regime for commercial broadcasters, because it is important for them to be prominent to maintain their levels of investment, and for public service broadcasting, which also needs to have appropriate prominence. Our objectives are therefore both economic and cultural. We want to ensure that viewers have easy access to valuable content and to public service broadcasting services, including local television, and to enhance the vitality and sustainability of public service broadcasting.

We are also debating the advent of local television. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, now the Secretary of State for Health, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Mr Hunt). It was his vision to bring local television to the United Kingdom, and it is very much down to him that we are in the position that we are in today. He drove the policy forward and made it happen, despite considerable obstacles placed in his way.

This Christmas will see the country’s first local television channel—in Grimsby, Hull and surrounding areas—Estuary Television, which launched at the end of last month. The transmission network that will support local TV has been completed and, thanks to the efforts of Ed Hall and his team at Comux, the new control centre in Birmingham went live at the end of November. It is also important to pay tribute to the work of Ofcom and the BBC Trust in getting local TV up and running. As the hon. Gentleman said, next year is when local TV starts in earnest, with 19 stations in the first phase going on air by the end of the year, including the two new services for Glasgow and for Edinburgh, which will be run by STV, because it won the new licences. It is also important to note that Ofcom will offer new licences for Dundee and Aberdeen next year.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned that local TV has been allocated the channel 8 slot in England and Northern Ireland on Freeview, but in Wales Channel 4 has the channel 8 slot, because S4C has the channel 4 slot; BBC Alba has the channel 8 slot in Scotland. Before the local TV licences were advertised in May last year, DMOL— Digital Television Multiplex Operators Ltd, a consortium of the Freeview operators—was asked to set out the position on EPG slots to Ofcom, which it did in April 2012. At that time, the best available slot in Wales and Scotland was channel 45.

Will the Minister clarify the criteria for awarding the slots? Are they based in any way on viewing figures? I would hazard a guess that the viewing figures for BBC Alba compared with those for STV are disproportionate for the slots.

As I might mention later in my speech, the criterion for public service broadcasting is “appropriate prominence”—that is in the guidelines, but it is a relatively vague term, which is one reason why it is important that we update the regulations. I will write to the hon. Gentleman, setting out in detail the criteria for the licence slots. It is important to note at this point, however, that local television is a new service; although it is public service broadcasting and should therefore have due prominence, that must be balanced against the fact that other stations already had slots that their viewers had got used to. There would be resistance from those stations to being moved off their slot.

I need to make a number of points. First, we are talking about new channels, so we should celebrate the fact that we are getting local television in Scotland. Secondly, when bids were invited, those who bid for local television slots in Scotland knew at the time that they would get channel 45. Importantly—and in a testament to the importance of local television and to the fact that Digital UK, which has in effect now taken over DMOL, also considers it important—when new slots became available, local television was moved up the EPG. It moved initially to channel 41 and then to 34; it has now reached 26, as it moves up the virtual hit parade. That is a significant improvement.

I have also had had discussions with Digital UK about the issue, because I have a lot of sympathy with the points made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk. Furthermore, the policy is one that we came up with, so we want to see it successful—albeit it had welcome all-party support.

Another aspect of the mix is that, because STV has won the licences for local television, it will be able to promote them on channel 3 to help viewers to find the new service. That is an additional element of support.

I may be anticipating the Minister’s comments, but I will draw him out anyway. My point is that if money has to be spent on advertising for people to find their local channels, revenue is being taken away from use on other things—I mentioned my positive view of production by STV—and advertising time on the main channel, which could have been sold to other people, is being taken away to advertise the new channels. If we believe in local television, we need to get it in parts of the country other than England and Northern Ireland. We have to give some incentive to cut down the cost—the opportunity cost—from someone else using that time.

It is important that I do not say too much, in case I get anything wrong, but it occurs to me that STV can certainly use its continuity announcements to make regular reference to city television being on channel 26. STV need not detract from its commercial advertising time, which is incredibly important to its finances. STV will take an imaginative and innovative approach to ensure that its viewers are aware that it is running effective local television. Furthermore, it is worth making the point that STV has already pioneered the way with web television, with—off the top of my head—about eight local web TV services for viewers to access.

As I hinted earlier, I am in regular touch with Digital UK about local television. It understands the importance that I personally attach to getting the best outcome possible, in particular given the challenge of the new services and getting them established. As I said earlier, I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that we have made considerable progress. I am due to meet Caroline Thomson, the chair of Digital UK, in the new year and will raise the issue again with her, as I recognise that stations need to have certainty before they firm up their marketing plans for launch.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that local TV services have been designated as public service broadcasters, so they should benefit from the requirement that such services are prominent on the EPG. As I said, that does not automatically guarantee a particular slot on the Freeview EPG, given that the Freeview platform has contracts in place with existing channels. That gives me the opportunity to move on to what I hope we might do about the EPG in the future.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, we published our strategy paper, “Connectivity, Content and Consumers”, in July and we raised the issue of prominence and whether the right channels are being made easily discoverable, as the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Jim Sheridan) indicated in his remarks. That does not apply only to local television; I think it applies to children’s television as well, for example.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister. May I point out to him that the debate need not finish until 5.10 pm, so he still has time?

I will finish early, I am afraid, Mrs Osborne.

We will launch a consultation early next year, and seek views on the prominence regime. Indeed, I would welcome the views of the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk and all hon. Members when we launch the consultation.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about BBC Alba, pointing out its prominent spot on the Freeview EPG in Scotland. BBC Alba is an important service and is designated as a public service broadcast channel, as local TV is. It was launched in September 2008 and took the free channel 8 slot when it joined Freeview in 2011. That has helped it to attract viewers, which in effect makes the hon. Gentleman’s point. It now has 0.5 million viewers a week on average, with 3.4 million tuning in via the BBC iPlayer last year. In fact, there was an 86% increase in iPlayer viewings in that year compared with the previous year. The decision to allocate the channel 8 slot was made by DMOL, now taken over by Digital UK, in line with its code on EPGs. I do not want to comment on whether the new local television service should take precedence over BBC Alba, but no doubt both the BBC and Digital UK will be watching the debate and reflecting on the points the hon. Gentleman has made.

If the Minister was listening clearly to the points I made he will have heard that I was not making a plea to move BBC Alba. I was passing on comments from my friends in the Gaeldom about the inappropriate things that are shown in Gaelic on BBC Alba, rather than saying that the channel should be moved.

I stand corrected by the hon. Gentleman.

We recognise the benefits of having a single, easily accessible channel for local television: it would help with branding and advertising sales for all local TV companies and would help new viewers find the new services. It is unlikely that that we will see a change before the launch of the new STV services in Edinburgh and Glasgow, but, as I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises, we have made progress since April 2012.

I have no wish to be rude about BBC Alba, but if we took the viewing figures for football away from BBC Alba I think we would find a big difference from the figures for STV. I have two questions. First, is it the case that BBC 1 will have the channel 1 slot, BBC 2 will have the channel 2 slot and BBC Alba will have the channel 8 slot? That gives the BBC a good run in the top 10—the hit parade that the Minister mentioned. Secondly, does he see any role for Ofcom in these discussions?

As I say, the current arrangements are likely to be the case for the foreseeable future. We all welcome the arrival of local television. As I said earlier, it was very much the vision of my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey but it came about because of all-party support and has been, dare I say it, one of our more popular policies.

There is an idiosyncratic situation in Wales and Scotland because of the presence of S4C and BBC Alba and the effect of that on the channel 8 slot; that is not the case in England or Northern Ireland. Originally, local television was allocated the channel 45 slot. The Department and others engaged with Digital UK and it clearly took notice—although I would not claim that it was as a direct result—because local TV has effectively been first in the queue when channel slots have become free, and has moved up to the channel 26 slot. That is in line with the regulatory system, which requires due prominence for public service broadcasting—and local television is designated public service broadcasting—balanced against the contractual situation with existing channels, which have a right to certainty.

We recognise that in a converging world the EPG plays a crucial role in ensuring that public service broadcasting remains prominent for the viewer. That is important both economically and, more importantly, culturally. Next year, we will consult—I apologise to the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North if he thinks the process has been delayed, but we will consult as soon as we can—on how we can secure prominence for public service broadcasters within the EPG regime. That will be an open consultation and we would welcome views from hon. Members and other interested stakeholders.

I do not have a firm date for when the consultation will be launched. Normally, when asked about the launch of any consultation I always say that it will be launched in the spring, mindful of the fact that in Whitehall spring runs from February to November. So I will say that the consultation is likely to be launched in the spring. I do not know how long it will last, but I suspect it will be about three months. I hope that will be time enough. There may even be a short inquiry by the Select Committee into the role of the EPG in a converged television world. We will certainly take on board any recommendations from the Select Committee.

That is the process we have undertaken. We have made progress. Perhaps we have not made as much progress as the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk would like to see, but at least on one level we are travelling in the same direction. We both recognise the importance of local television and we also recognise that an anomaly exists in Scotland, so there is a need to consult and to make progress.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting adjourned.