In the 28 years since S4C was launched the landscape in which the channel finds itself has been transformed. S4C was born at a time when there were only three other television channels. In 1982 video recorders were starting to appear in people’s homes and the internet was an abstract concept. Today digital television has given rise to hundreds of channels catering to a wide range of tastes, while the advent of broadband and 3G technology enables viewers to download programming on demand. There are now not only many more channels to watch but more ways to watch them.
This is the third in a series of articles we are publishing on the future of S4C. Tomorrow Mari Bynon Owen, former Commissioning Editor for Youth Programmes with S4C, gives her view.
Like all broadcasters S4C needed to respond to the inevitable changes. The explosion of digital platforms meant viewers in Wales could for the first time receive Channel 4’s service in its entirety. So S4C redefined itself as an exclusively Welsh language service existing in an increasingly crowded television market.
The channel attempted to create a service that stands shoulder to shoulder with other ex-terrestrial stations by broadcasting from the early morning through until late at night. It went on to develop branded children’s services (Cyw and Stwnsh), a website to enable access to programming online (Clic) and a high definition platform (Clirlun).
However, these initiatives have been achieved against falling advertising revenue and with no extra money from the Department of Culture Media and Sport. To many it seems that while S4C ploughed its energy into developing a wide range of services comparable to other channels, it forgot to ensure it was still making creative and relevant programmes.
The decision to no longer have individual commissioning editors developing and commissioning programming was undoubtedly an error of judgement on the part of the S4C Authority. Without specialists in different genres the failure rate of new shows was always going to be higher. After all, how could somebody with no track record in drama be confident that a new drama series would hit the mark?
It’s sad to admit that a hunger for great programming has been absent for some time at S4C’s headquarters in Llanishen. It seems as though decisions on programmes have largely been influenced by the need to fill an extensive post-digital schedule and the tighter budgets this larger schedule demands.
The time has undoubtedly come for S4C to reinvent itself. And reinvention in the current climate can only be a good thing. S4C should demand the time and space to decide how best it can serve the needs of its audience. It should focus its resources on making vital programming that reflects Wales culturally, socially and politically. Since 1982 ITV has abandoned its role as a regional broadcaster and BBC Wales makes fewer programmes that represent Wales and its people in the authentic way that used to be the case.
S4C should therefore seize the day and unashamedly occupy this territory as the only broadcaster that can seriously and properly make programmes that reflect Wales and Welsh life. It should produce work that asks important questions about our nation and be a shop window for our distinct culture. It should focus on creating well-made and relevant television that entertains and stimulates. Quality should be the calling card of the channel.
If S4C has to cut programmes in order to do this then so be it. By losing the programming that arguably replicates content made in English it could free up resources and plough them into television programmes that get people talking because of the work’s distinctiveness. For example, the lifestyle shows could be lost, the dramas that mimic generic formats, and some of the sport. Of course, this would run against the grain of the common argument that S4C – as the only Welsh language television service – should cater for everyone and offer every time of programme under the sun.
I would agree that Welsh speakers deserve a substantial and extensive television service. However, I don’t think the current model at current funding levels is sustainable. S4C chose to make itself ITV-light in the post-analogue era. Yet with the limited resources that are currently under attack in the public spending review it might be wiser for the channel to become CBeebies during the morning, CBBC in the afternoon, and only a mainstream broadcasting service after 7pm – like BBC3 and BBC4.
It should also without doubt focus attention on the online service it offers as on-demand services such as See Saw and Project Canvas take to the stage. It’s highly likely that the way we watch television will change again in the next few years and S4C needs to make sure it has a presence.
It was S4C’s choice to radically expand its service for the post-analogue age. When the channel started broadcasting in 1982 it made 22 hours of original programming a week with an extra 10 hours of programming made by the BBC. The expansion that took place was bold, but without additional funding standards were always going to slip. There would be more repeats to fill the empty hours and audiences would slump as they experimented with the new channels that had arrived.
A streamlined and rejuvenated S4C would also enable it to reach the audiences it knows aren’t currently watching. I know from experience that my teenage nephews and nieces – fluent Welsh speakers from Carmarthenshire – don’t tune into the channel from choice. These are people born into a digital age and they are the future audience. It seems obvious to me that S4C needs to work hard to create a product that will be must-see television for this raft of young people. They will only watch programmes that reflect their lives as young bilingual adults and are as good as the English language programmes they currently watch.
Change is always uncomfortable, especially when talked about in the context of an important Welsh language institution like S4C. Nevertheless, I am confident that if it asks searching questions about the television service it should be providing, S4C can become a creative pioneer with a real relevance to people’s lives.