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Tuesday, June 09, 2009

The search for plurality in broadcasting

The publication of a report by the Communities and Culture Committee today, looking at Welsh broadcasting is an important step forward in the fight to secure choice and diversity in the provision of Welsh news and current affairs, as well as to ensure the proper representation of Wales in mainstream television and radio programming.

The recent merger of ITV Wales with an English region and severe cutbacks in the provision of Welsh news on that network has left the BBC as a near monopoly provider. ITV have been hit by a 20% fall in advertising revenue in the first three months of the year and their public service broadcasting licence will expire in 2010

No independent network could match the level of resources the BBC puts into this but it is important that there is some competition so as to ensure that there is more than one voice on our airwaves commenting on Welsh public affairs.

The Committee has very sensibly taken a staged approach. As a long term objective they want to create an independent body with a budget of around £25m to commission news and other programmes on ITV. They say that the cash could come from a levy on commercial broadcasters, Lottery funding, funds currently used to prepare for the digital switchover and public money from the Welsh and UK governments. They envisage that ITV would provide slots in its schedule for programmes commissioned by the new body.

In the short term they want to make use of S4C and the very vibrant independent sector in Wales to commission English-language programming. It is a sensible first step but will be dependent on the goodwill of S4C and the availability of funding.

The whole problem with this review lies in the fact that responsibility for broadcasting lies with Westminster. I think it is reasonable to question UK Minister's commitment to plurality in Welsh broadcasting. Is it even on their radar?

I know that the Heritage Minister takes a far more active interest in this than his predecessor and raises these issues regularly in Whitehall but we are now getting to the point whereby the only way that these sorts of recommendations can be taken forward is if the responsibility and the budgets for broadcasting are devolved to the Welsh Assembly. If that does not happen then I fear that ITV Wales and the alternative service it provides will disappear very quickly.
We do have the 'most subsidised, per viewer' channel in Wales already - S4C.

Devolving broadcasting will hopefully begin a serious look at how sustainable that is.
I have to disagree 25Million on a channel that carries news and what else apart from the feret and some programme about what welsh councils do which competes with east enders.

Seriously why spend more money why not just give S4C responsibility for filling the slots?
(I apologize in advance for being so long-winded. Broadcasting matters.)

My feeling is very much that this is a missed opportunity. The last thing we needed was another bloody Quango on top of the Welsh Fourth Channel Authority.

A more holistic view of Welsh broadcasting should have been taken. The state of Welsh language television is very much like the state of English language television in the 1950s: a single (albeit very good) channel trying to cover all audiences.

Now I've not been entirely fair to S4C there: they have for a number of years had a channel covering the Assembly, last year they launched Cyw (a channel for small children), and they have plans to launch a channel for older children.

The two big gaps are the second main channel, with a greater emphasis on the principles to educate and to inform (rather as BBC2 was originally intended to be), and news coverage. The failure of Welsh language news to adapt to the 24-hour age is ultimately what underlies the perception that Russia could invade Finland and S4C would lead on a man being injured in an accident on the A470.

As for English language television specific to Wales, there would be considerable economies of scale running it from the improved S4C as outlined above. For instance, once one has sorted out news coverage in Welsh, it is relatively trivial to use the same information for a broadcast in English. And the amount of English language television would fit very well the bandwidth freed when Cyw is not broadcasting. (And let's get the silly statistical argument out of the way: there's a case for making, say, science programs in Welsh, but science itself isn't any different in Wales, so it's pointless competing against the wealth of English language broadcasting.)

Coming to funding, it only seems fair that public service broadcasting in Wales gets its share of the licence fee revenue. Taking this would allow sustaining the sort of broadcasting suitable for Wales in the digital age that I have outlined above, whilst the direct grant can cover the one-off costs necessary in that expansion. Advertising is a contentious subject (after all, there are no ads on BBC Alba), but my feeling is that it should continue with provisos: adverts should either be in the Welsh language or promote Welsh businesses; there is no place for adverts from Whitehall Departments who cannot even be bothered to translate their websites into Welsh (cough, Swyddfa Gartref). And advertising revenue should be ringfenced for specific social purposes.

I have not yet mentioned radio. Clearly in the case of S4C being focussed on as the Welsh public service broadcaster, as I have argued, Radio Cymru and Radio Wales would need to come across to compensate for the changes in funding. Similar principles apply as with television: Radio Wales fills a specific gap, whilst Radio Cymru cannot possibly be all things to all people. Broadly speaking, we would do well to compare the situation to public service radio in Catalonia and review provision on that basis.

And investment in a more suitable public service for Wales in the digital age can only serve to encourage the independent content providers. I would very much like to see some of them reaching the level of viability where commercial channel start-ups become possible.

Yes, it's sad that ITV isn't what it used to be, but we needn't be too concerned by its descent into being the poor man's Sky One: if we do the right things, we have a great opportunity in S4C to build up a strong broadcasting sector here in Wales instead.
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