12 October 2008

Minority language television needs careful handling.

BBC Alba, the new Scottish Gaelic channel, went on the air a few short weeks ago, receiving an unsurprisingly mixed reaction.

Setting aside the tiresome and predictable -- too much money, dying language, shortbread tin, etc etc ad nauseum -- there were a few areas of comment that perhaps justify more examination: too many repeats, the same old faces, too much music.  OK, the number of repeats is to be expected as new programs cost money which any minority channel is going to be short of.  The same old faces?  Well who else has been trained to do the job?  But too much music?  That brings us to the heart of the one of the greatest problems in Gaelic broadcasting, and perhaps also the Gaelic public image.

Why so much music?

Well, put simply, music is cheap.  There's loads of people who rehearse in their own time and all you've got to do is bring them into a suitably kitted out studio or hall and record them.  Secondly, a music program is far more accessible to the non-speaker and/or outsider than a sitcom (something's always lost in the translation) or a debate on the impact of crofting reforms on the Western Isles.  Furthermore, traditional music is woefully underexposed by mainstream programming.  Combining music programming with Gaelic programming may not kill two birds with one stone -- many of the traditional music fans decry the lack of Scots, and many Gaels are seachd searbh sgìth of the whole harp-and-bagpipe scene -- but where statisticians are concerned, two half-dead birds are the same as one parrot that has ceased to be.

The use of music programming in the great ratings chase has done inestimable damage to Gaelic's public image: it reinforces the notion that Gaelic is primarily the plaything of anachronistic Celtic twilightists, and obscures the fact that Gaelic is a living community language, flexible to myriad situations, and spoken mostly by normal people with no particular cultural axe to grind.

But this music-heavy tradition still is of great importance to BBC Alba.

The BBC Trust have declared that for BBC Alba to be considered viable and receive the funding required to move to Freeview in 2010, they must have an audience of a quarter of a million.  This is more than four times the number of speakers of Gaelic in Scotland, so the channel has to reach out quite far to people with little or no interest in the language.

How is BBC Alba to compete?  Even if they bought the rights to a hit series on the scale of Friends or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who would tune in to see a Gaelic dubbed version with English subtitles when they can watch the original on another channel?  Creating a new series of that magnitude is pretty difficult given the budget they've had to settle for.  So what can they do?  Same old faces and too much music.  For now... but it's still not enough.

So the channel came on-line with two different active audience groups -- the supposed core market of Gaelic speakers and the supporting market of traditional music fans -- but these hardly go any way to providing the ratings needed, so the channel will either have to focus much of its expenditure in the forthcoming round of commissions on a non-Gaelic speaking audience or simply put it's head down, rely on integrity and produce a Gaelic channel.

Because in essence, what the BBC Trust has said is not that the Scottish Gaelic community can have a channel, but that they can make a channel.  Yes, make a channel, but for someone else.  Who?  The BBC doesn't care.  Just anyone other than Gaels.

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