If Scots vote for independence, will they still get to watch Doctor Who?

Should Scotland decide to break with Britain on Thursday, its relationship with the BBC – and indeed, the country's whole cultural industry – would be thrown into question.

Paul Hackett/Reuters
'Yes' supporters gather at a rally outside the BBC in Glasgow, Scotland, on Sunday.The referendum on Scottish independence will take place on Sept. 18, when Scotland will vote whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

There are few more potent icons of Britain, and Britishness, than the BBC. But if Scotland says yes to independence Thursday, will the British Broadcasting Corporation's ability to feed Scots' media appetite – from world news to the iconic "Dr. Who" – come to an end? 

Questions about the BBC's standing in an independent Scotland speak to a larger uncertainty about how a "yes" vote would affect not only broadcasting options but the wider cultural sector. While some see a boon, others are worried about the prospect of ripping things up and starting again – and question whether the Scottish National Party (SNP) would help foster the kind of robust media atmosphere that Britain enjoys.

Some see a new energy emerging in the wake of a Yes vote. Earlier this month, 1,300 cultural figures signed a letter backing independence. On Sunday night, musicians including Franz Ferdinand and Mogwai played a pro-independence concert in Edinburgh.

"The opportunity to create a new state is perhaps the ultimate challenge that a society can grapple with," says Ross Colquhoun, a founding member of the pro-independence cultural group National Collective. "It is also a fundamentally creative one. It is the task of artists to inhabit the vanguard of imagining and questioning the future of a society."

In the case of filling a void left by the BBC, the SNP says a separate Scottish Broadcasting Service could start in 2017. It would tap the resources of BBC Scotland, the current regional branch of the BBC, while establishing a formal relationship with the BBC in London so Scots could continue to watch not only "Doctor Who" but "Strictly Come Dancing."

This arrangement would require a licensing agreement from the BBC in the rest of the UK. "What is being sought is a most-favored nation trading relationship with the BBC," says Prof. Philip Schlesinger, a media expert at Glasgow University. "It is a proposal that sits on the table and we don’t know if it will be accepted were there to be negotiations about independence after 18 September 2014." 

Broadcasting is an area that Scottish nationalists have long sought more control over. Shortly after becoming Scottish first minister in 2007, Alex Salmond argued that broadcasting powers should be transferred from Westminster to Scotland. More recently, nationalists have been critical of the BBC’s coverage of the referendum campaign. Last weekend, a large crowd protested outside the BBC’s main Glasgow offices against perceived bias in the corporation’s output.

But not everyone is heartened by the SNP’s vision of the post-independence cultural landscape, in particular the proposal to create a new broadcaster. "After independence, the SNP would shape the design and membership of state institutions, and there would be weak independent media," argued media strategy analyst Claire Enders in a column for the Guardian. "An independent Scotland would struggle to establish the quality of democracy that the UK enjoys."

Many working within the television industry have more concrete concerns about sustaining their businesses in an independent Scotland. Over the past decade, Glasgow has emerged as the biggest broadcasting hub outside London. Nicole Kleeman, who employs five people in her successful independent production company in the city, says she is "very worried about the viability of the company if there is a yes vote," as companies based in Scotland will be less likely to win lucrative UK-wide commissions.

"Investigative journalism is expensive and we need to access the large pan-UK network budgets to make our work viable," says Ms. Kleeman, who used to work at the BBC in London before establishing Firecrest Films. 

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