The Future of Welsh Language Content

Huw Marshall considers the next steps for shaping S4C’s future.

Last month the independent review on the future of S4C, authored by Euryn Ogwen Williams, was published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The full report and its recommendations can be read here. The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport responded by accepting the recommendations, again this response can be read in full here.

A number of people, including myself, were disappointed by the original remit of the review. This was a golden opportunity to redefine how Welsh language content is created and distributed, not only by S4C, but by every institution and sector in Wales.

The author had a narrow remit as well as a tight time frame within which to conduct the review. The 3 key areas he was asked to focus on were S4C’s current remit, how it’s funded and its governance. I’m glad that Euryn looked at this creatively and prepared a report based on 3 chapters, these being:

 

Chapter 1: Delivering high quality content and serving Welsh speaking audiences

 

Chapter 2: Guaranteeing an S4C for the future

 

Chapter 3: Securing an independent and effective S4C

 

A small number of comments online have questioned Euryn’s hypothesis in relation to S4C’s funding. Having read the report several times I believe that Euryn makes a fair point, securing a stable and constant level of funding is key, not necessarily the level of funding, which wasn’t within the scope of the review.

The notion that the DCMS’s contribution come to an end makes perfect sense. As someone who was within S4C when the government in London announced their annual spending plans in the Autumn statement, I witnessed first-hand the energies that were implemented in order to secure continued support from DCMS. This placed considerable strain on internal resource as well as creating tensions within S4C and the wider production sector. Having one long term, stable and secure funding source, from the licence fee, combined with a wider and more effective commercial remit, will allow S4C to plan for the long term.

The argument over the level of funding is one that will continue ad infinitum, the same is true for any area of expenditure from health to culture, from education to the environment.  Everyone could do with more money, but what is most important is what is being done with the finance available.

I sincerely believe that more can be done with the money available. The changes to modes of production, especially in relation to facilities costs, have changed greatly during the last decade. The age of individuals having one specific skill are rapidly growing to a close.  The most creative individuals, and the ones leading the way within the content creation landscape, are masters of many disciplines: researching, scripting, shooting and editing their own work. And all of this with equipment in the possession of a substantial number of the population. Whereas a mortgage was required to purchase camera equipment and editing hardware and software a decade ago, the smartphone, laptop and cloud technologies have opened a door to a whole new creative universe.

S4C’s big mistake in the past, in my opinion, was the decision to create and support a small number of large companies; companies that have by today transferred into the ownership of larger companies over the border, and soon to be the other side of the Atlantic. This poses a threat to S4C’s future supply chain. The business models of these companies don’t sit comfortably within the margins that are on offer from S4C budgets. A culture of smaller and more collaborative companies can drive a new age of creativity for Welsh language content, ironically the very same foundations that S4C was originally built upon.

S4C needs to be brave in its decision making and develop real, energetic and purposeful partnerships, two things the channel has failed to do in the past. S4C needs to be allowed to simplify the way it operates, and develop a new agile model. S4C is treated and regulated as if it were a huge corporation, when in fact it’s more akin to an SME.

The most contentious piece of the report, and one that has received surprisingly little scrutiny or attention, is the idea that S4C could develop its internal resource and have an inhouse “digital” production unit. The argument is made that S4C couldn’t become a producer of linear content (although there is nothing to stop them doing this) but it could become a digital producer. This is where I disagree strongly. Digital is no longer something separate, something “other” from the norm.  Digital IS the norm, the norm is digital, it’s an intrinsic part of our everyday lives. There is no difference between linear and digital, only the way they are perceived.

The way to develop capacity in this space is to develop partnerships. An investment in facilities and ensuring these are available to content producers, small and large, could achieve something special. Similar models exist across Europe: I received first-hand experience of this when I visited EITB in the Basque Country.  Trust me, it works.

We need to create a cluster:  a cluster of individuals and companies that create content in its numerous forms;  a cluster that has partnering in its DNA. The cluster can be both physical and virtual, but it requires a hub for it to work efficiently and this is where S4C can lead the way. The Egin in Carmarthen should be the first of these hubs, one of several developed across Wales – creative and cultural hubs.

The will and the talent is there.  What’s needed now is a practical framework, business development and marketing support, adequate education and training plans, routes to finance and investment that can ensure Welsh language content is created for the multitude of audiences here in Wales and beyond. And that content and platforms developed here are able to reach international markets.

It’s a crucial time for the Welsh language, culturally and technologically.  It is also an incredibly exciting time. Shaping an S4C that’s fit for purpose for the decades to come can help secure Welsh Government’s target of reaching 1,000,000 Welsh speakers by 2050.

 

This article first appeared on Huw Marshall’s personal blog

All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Huw Marshall is a Digital strategist and media consultant & former head of digital at S4C