Crunch year for Welsh media

Geraint Talfan Davies, IWA Chairman:

2009: There has not been a more important year for the media in Wales for decades past, nor will there be for decades to come. This will be the year when we truly see the shape of things to come, with much of the action shoe-horned into the first three months.

By now the communications regulator, Ofcom, will have decided how it would like to see the future of public service broadcasting. Its board will give the proposals some final tweaks at its meeting this month before revealing all in February. This is likely to be a crucial announcement for the future of television broadcasting in Wales – not only for ITV’s Welsh news service, but also for the future of general programming made for Wales.

Hard on the heels of Ofcom, the Communications Minister, Lord Carter, will publish his report on Digital Britain that, apart from endorsing some or all of Ofcom’s proposals, could boost the prospects for superfast broadband. It is significant that in his new year interview with The Observer Gordon Brown, mentioned superfast broadband in the context of a possible job-creating public works programme that could also assist the cause of carbon efficiency.

The big issue is whether such a commitment will provide for a universal service that would reach both poorer and more sparsely populated parts of the country. Wales could be into it early with BT planning to pilot superfast broadband for the UK in Whitchurch, Cardiff. Without a wider switch the higher speeds would be confined to Virgin Media’s cable system, with its limited geographical reach, thus entrenching the digital divide.

Later in the year the switching-off of analogue television transmission will begin with Kilvey Hill, near Swansea, and Preseli and Carmel in August, with Llanddona, in the north-west, and Moel-y-Parc in the north-east, following in October. The process will be completed early in 2010 with the Blaenplwyf transmitter in February, followed by Wenvoe in March.

2009 will also see two less well-publicised events that could, nevertheless be very significant. First is the auction of broadcasting spectrum that could allow for a local television service for Cardiff and Newport. Regulations for this auction came into effect on 5 January. It has to be said that the commercial precedents for local television in the UK are not encouraging, so it will be interesting to see how many bidders for this spectrum emerge, and who they might be. It could be an indicator of new coalitions of forces in Welsh media.

Since any successful bidder will own this spectrum in perpetuity, and will be able to trade it the market place, some players may well think they can pick up an important but cheap playing card for the future.

A second development, later in the year, will be the launch of Real Radio’s service for north and West Wales, to add to its service across south Wales. Last year there were only two bidders for this radio licence, the other being a group wanting to provide a more local service in the north-east. The award of the licence gives Real Radio (part of the Guardian Media Group) an all Wales footprint – the first all-Wales commercial radio service. We shall have to see whether this leads to any significant development in radio journalism, which has not been strong in the radio sector.

But the big interest for Wales lies in decisions on public service broadcasting, and the extent to which Ofcom and the Government will take note of the real concerns. There has been a tendency in London to believe that the only broadcasting issue in Wales is broadcasting in the Welsh language. The current Ofcom review of the system is the first in which services in the English language have been the main concern.

Ofcom’s own advisory committee for Wales, advocated a Welsh Broadcasting Commission and an investment of £40m ‘to sustain and improve the range of output.’ The Assembly Government’s Broadcasting Advisory Group (of which, I should say, I was a member) called for something very similar, a Wales Media Commission, with at least £30m needed simply “to restore the value to Welsh broadcasting likely to be lost between 2006 and 2013,” but rising to £50m to fund a possible English language channel for Wales, along with online development. Its proposals were endorsed by the Welsh Assembly Government and its Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones.

Almost every observer expects ITV’s news service for Wales to be rescued by some means or other: either by a renewed commitment from ITV, some additional public funding, some resource sharing with the BBC, or a combination of all these. The trap for Wales lies in accepting such a minimal deal.

At ITV Wales’s Politician of the Year event before Christmas, several politicians rightly underlined the importance of plurality in news, but the biggest threat now is to the English language general programming. By the end of this year, in English language television for Wales, sport will account for more hours than the combined total devoted to drama, music, arts, factual and light entertainment programmes. Wales needs a complete television service in English as well as in Welsh.

Geraint Talfan Davies is chairman of the Institute of Welsh Affairs.

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