Gaelic TV is surprise hit with viewers

When the BBC launched its first Gaelic language channel in Scotland last month, the first night's line-up featured a comedy drama about the disembodied spirit of Elvis Presley on the Isle of Lewis and a performance from a ceilidh band from the Isle of Skye.

It might seem an unorthodox approach to help broaden the appeal of a vanishing language – but it appears to be working. For BBC Alba is proving to be an unexpected success, pulling in more than 600,000 viewers in its first week of broadcasting, more than double the projected audience of 250,000.

Research carried out on behalf of the channel, the result of a partnership between the BBC and the private firm MG Alba, found that 15 per cent of the Scottish population tuned into the station in the week following its launch on 19 September. The figures are particularly encouraging given the channel's modest annual budget of £14m, and the fact that it only broadcasts between 5pm and 11pm each day. Currently, it is only available on Sky, Freesat and Virgin Media, and not on Freeview.

Margaret Mary Murray, head of BBC Alba, said the initial research results reflected "an excellent start". "Our service strategy was to create attractively different programmes which would serve the Gaelic communities but also appeal to a broad national audience," she said. "People seem to be drawn in by the freshness and originality of the channel's approach." BBC Alba boasts an eclectic set of programmes, including a European current affairs series called Eorpa, a children's show De a-nis? and Spors, a Saturday night sports show. Alasdair Morrison, chairman of MG Alba, said: "The viewing figures are tremendously encouraging and reflect the enthusiasm we have encountered across Scotland for the new channel."

The figures were particularly surprising given the results of the 2001 census, which showed that the number of Gaelic speakers in Scotland had fallen to an all-time low of just 58,650.

Calum Macleod, at the Gaelic language agency, Comunn na Gaidhlig, said that the high viewing figures recorded by BBC Alba proved that plenty of people in the country were still interested in the language. "The figures highlight the fact that Gaelic is certainly not dead, and show that people who do not speak Gaelic are watching the channel as well," he said. "This speaks volumes for the quality of the programmes being put out."

There is now a drive for BBC Alba to be made available on Freeview.

Mr Macleod said: "We feel that it is grossly unfair that, after campaigning for the channel for years and years, the massive majority of the Gaelic-speaking audience do not have access to it."

BBC Alba: The schedule

Eorpa (Europe)

Current affairs series which covers political and social issues affecting Europe.

Peter Manuel: Deireadh an Uilc? (Peter Manuel: The Edge of Evil?)

A drama documentary about the serial killer Peter Manuel.

Eilbheas (Elvis)

A comedy drama set on the Isle of Lewis the day that Elvis Presley died.

De a-Nis? (What Now?)

Children's show, which has been running on BBC2 Scotland since 1993.

Spors (Sports)

Sports show going out on Saturday nights.

An La (The Day)

News show, covering Scottish and international news.

Cnag na Cuise (Centre of the Matter)

Weekly chat show.

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