Broadcasting Smoke and Mirrors

Euryn Ogwen Williams says Wales is entitled to £30m from the BBC’s digital switch-over fund to kick start English language programming:

If we examine the small print of the recent increase to the BBC’s licence fee, to take account of the costs of digital switchover, it is possible to make a strong argument for investing some of it in future in English language broadcasting for Wales. This essential need has recently become lost in the argument over who does what and which channel should benefit.

However, £130 million will become available in the next few years, when the digital switchover has been accomplished. We in Wales should be making the strongest possible case for a fair share. I calculate that this would be of the order of some £30 million. And as I argue below, if used creatively, this could plug the gap in English language programming that is occurring as a result of the decline of ITV Wales.

Wednesday, 21 January, the day after Obama’s inauguration, was a good day to bury bad news but a strange choice if you wanted to say something important. The something important was the result of a lengthy consultation about Public Service Broadcasting in the digital age. In equal proportion to the overwhelming significance of the previous day, people were underwhelmed on Wednesday. It seemed that the consultation process had been derailed in the last few months by global economic and financial events. This is no time to be brave and begin the reconstruction of a sector. As long as the BBC is there, let’s not risk losing everything. Indeed, at a time like this, the nation needs its comfort zones and, whatever its weaknesses, Auntie provides the comfort that banks and government cannot.

Eventually, the economic crisis will pass and life will return to a different kind of normality.
Unfortunately, the relentless march of the digital revolution is irreversible and, even worse, the pace is quickening. Looking at 21 January 2009 from that aspect, makes it appear like a good day to bury bad news. Most journalists, even those working in broadcast media, are struggling to pick their way through the complexity of all of this and most people don’t really care, so the accomplished smoke-and-mirrors announcement by Ofcom passed with little interest.

Ofcom gets high marks for managing a no-win situation with great skill. Clearly, the regulator like the broadcasters knows how to use audience research to get them out of trouble. ITV slipped quietly of the game, the BBC got a temporary reprieve on top-slicing the licence fee and Channel Four found itself splashing around and looking for shallower water. However, the top marks go to S4C for pulling the masterstroke with their elegant news supply idea, which provided Ofcom with the distraction to get away with a solid but uninspiring announcement.

In Wales, we haven’t yet learnt the skills of participating in consultations. The art of committee is writ large into our DNA, so we think that consultations are about a consensus, delay and diffusion. We understand how a small group of determined people can use the committee structure to slow things down or to get their own way and make it look like democracy. We’ve all done it, haven’t we? Consultations, unless you’re actually running them, are not like that.

Certainly, they provide a cloak of democracy to centrally generated ideas if there’s nothing new and exciting out there. But when there is a good idea, the process of consultation will identify it and fast track it through the system. The failure of individuals and institutions in Wales to understand that this process is about getting shiny new ideas and not about prearranged consensus caught many on the hop.

Our best consensus view was to ask for a few million pounds a year to maintain the old institutions – it would be too cynical to suggest that these were the institutions that gave us the problem in the first place. We should not assume that creativity ends when institutions falter. The digital universe is full of Welsh content on government sponsored and corporate websites or on You Tube. There’s a lot of Welsh creativity out there. The problem is that there’s no one place to find it and, as a nation, we find it difficult to think outside the box of hierarchies and institutions.

Consensus and digital do not blend well. At the heart of the digital revolution are the concepts of individual choice, competition, plenty, niches and change. It is not the technology that drives the revolution but the consumers and citizens taking control of their media. It’s a geodesic revolution which threatens the rationale of traditional top-down broadcast media. And when S4C threw in their rather elegant solution to ensuring plurality in news provision for Wales, many analogue establishment pundits and journalists lost the plot. By the time Lord Carter’s report was published on 29 January, highlighting the S4C idea as something that could work in the other nations, the analogue thinkers went bananas. Individuals seemed personally offended that they had not been included in the thought processes of S4C. BBC Wales’s Dragon’s Eye became a corporate vehicle to discuss the rights of S4C to suggest anything without discussing it with the BBC. Respected journalists and broadcasters ignored 86 pages of a report that changed the very nature of communications in Britain because of one sentence. This was the one that said that S4C had dared to think outside the analogue box about the future of public service broadcasting in Wales and the complex relationship of the two languages in a bilingual nation. Really, it was all very sad.

Plurality of news supply is important. We have it, just about, in English at the moment but are in danger of getting less of it as ITV’s viability is threatened and the Western Mail’s readership declines. In the Welsh language, we have none. One newsroom is the source of all radio, television and online news as well as 50 per cent of broadcast current affairs in Welsh. Why shouldn’t S4C be concerned about that now? It’s been concerned about it for 28 years. Far more worrying are the behind-closed-doors discussions in an ‘advanced stage’, we are led to believe, between ITV Wales and BBC Wales about sharing resources. Now that is a threat to plurality. Any journalist with bottle willing to take this one on?

What will happen to Channel 4? Will RTL buy ITV and free Channel 5 to join with Channel 4 and BBC Worldwide to form a large group that can match the BBC and provide a new commercial model for PSB? Will the Competition Commission say no, as it did to the Kangaroo joint venture of BBC, ITV and Channel 4, to provide an on-demand viewing platform? That was a serious blow to the consortium, which had spent £20 million in developing the platform and had come up with a catchy brand name – SeeSaw.

Some believe that these problems are not relevant to Wales. Believe me, they are not only relevant but critical. Structures for digital communication have relevance beyond geographic boundaries and whatever we do to develop plurality in public service broadcasting in Wales, we must not arrogantly believe that we can do it in isolation.

On the last Monday in February, Lord Elis Thomas, Presiding Officer of our National Assembly, threw his wet rag on the fire: more smoke! Was this the BBC striking back, I thought? How could I be so cynical? Speaking in tandem with the Chairman of the BBC Trust in Cardiff he said that S4C should be devolved because it was to do with the Welsh language. By the following morning this was BBC Wales’ big news story. Nobody else’s big story, it must be said, but by the evening bulletin it even had the political correspondent, very corporately, hailing it as “floating an interesting idea”.

The old ideas are the best. This old chestnut has done the rounds many times before and the political response is usually, “Only if you take the whole of broadca
sting”. By the following day, the idea had withered. The Llywydd’s problem was that by using the Welsh language card he should have included the transfer of responsibility for Radio Cymru as well, but he probably couldn’t do that as a guest of the BBC. However, honour had been satisfied. The BBC had got its own back on S4C. The two institutions had their tit for tat and the media village had a bit of excitement. Sadly, from the public response to Radio Cymru’s Taro’r Post, it didn’t excite anyone outside that circle. It had been a diversion.

This hyperventilation over news left the rest of public service broadcasting breathing quietly into a paper bag. A pity, because that is a real concern. Our culture and drama, which give us our identity, hardly exists on screen at all in English. There are plenty of bits and pieces coming from a sub-culture that distributes on the web, but very little of that creativity or talent reaches the television viewer through ITV or the BBC in Wales.

The institutional approach isn’t really working any more, and the sooner we accept this, the better. There are fundamental issues of funding, distribution and carriage to be resolved, but there is a great deal of creativity in Wales and there are business structures to support that creativity. The range and depth of S4C’s schedule demonstrates that. So let’s concentrate on the real problems and be open to the possibility that they can be solved in the digital way, bottom-up.

While the traditional institutions were talking the talk, and traditional media gurus were lost in the angels and pins debate, a young web development company from Cardiff, Cube Interactive, quietly went about the business of bidding for a chunk of new spectrum on the Wenvoe transmitter when it switches over in March 2010. Ofcom had advertised this widely because it’s the equivalent of three or four TV channels and a couple of radio stations in the Cardiff area. But Cube won the licence because it was the only bidder. Great news for those who see the digital future as different from the analogue past, and it highlights how quickly this change is happening outside the traditional thinking.

At the end of last year almost nine in every ten households in Wales was viewing digital television from satellite, Freeview or cable. In just over a year’s time, it will be very close to 100 per cent and analogue will be yesterday’s standard. The issues around broadband delivery and take-up will remain for another few years but the market, with some public intervention, will sort them out. Universality, one of the fundamentals of public service broadcasting, is not an issue on one platform or another. But the opportunities of digital communications will only be realised when it is recognised that consumers and citizens in Wales are already in the driving seat. Ownership of mobile phones, the level of text messaging, the proliferation of ipods and wireless access points around Wales are a clear indicator that at grass roots level, the technology does not intimidate people. We know that there’s always been a generational aspect to the adoption of new technology, but it is less so with digital gadgetry.

There is a way forward if we begin to think less about channels and platforms and more about content and how to pay for it. In the digital future that is coming at us very fast, we will soon be able to design our own personalised channels. There will be less of a need to worry about a dedicated English language channel for Wales. Each of us will be able to create one for ourselves, using a developed version of the ‘On Demand’ function to itemise the kind of programming we want to see and when we want to see it.

This personalised ‘On demand’ provision will scan the myriad channels that are on offer and select from them the programming we specify, including content about Wales. What we need to do therefore, is to ensure that there is a varied amount of English language Welsh content available for it to be downloaded on to our screens – whether it be current affairs, documentaries, interview series, talk shows and the rest.

The one area where inevitably there will be difficulty in ensuring a supply of English language Welsh content is drama, since this is so relatively expensive. However, there is a source of funding which Wales should have an entitlement to, which would be enough to make a start in providing an on-going supply of the rest of television’s traditional fare. Suitably, this should come from the BBC’s digital fund surplus. Recently, the licence fee was increased by some £130 million a year to enable the BBC to pay for the Digital Switchover. Once we have crossed the Rubicon to this digital future within the next 3 years, this money should be deployed to provide extra public service broadcasting content from alternative sources.

Ofcom floated the idea of using it to help Channel 4’s funding gap and also to fund news on ITV in the Nations and Regions. The BBC quite naturally, were a bit negative about using its licence fee to support other institutions. Yet this money was clearly not given to the BBC to support its institutional needs, either. So let’s find the arguments and the political will to fund public service content where it is most needed. £30m for news in the Nations and Regions and £100m divided equitably between the devolved nations of the UK would bring us back to par with 1970s and 80s spend on English language programmes from Wales. On a population basis that would mean a £30 million Welsh share. It would also address the democratic deficit in the nations and make it much easier for UK broadcasters to meet their quota obligations on programming from the Nations.

This should be the core of building a new funding resource to provide English-language Welsh content for the digital age.

To streamline the process of getting the funds into content, a small business tendering team should tender strands of provision to consortia and companies for a contracted price over a set period. The division of the strands for tendering would be done through consultation with existing cultural institutions and audience research. Crucially, the competing companies or consortia will have to provide details of their contracted arrangements with different broadcasters and distributors, (including UK networks) as well as providing their quality assurances on editorial and business matters before bidding for a tender. The distribution need not be confined to traditional television channels, it could also be web-based. Why not use some of the fund to launch a Welsh web-based English language news and magazine service, akin to the Huffington Post in the United States?

It would make sense to place this new tendering team, that will not be making subjective commissioning decisions, within the framework of S4C since its structures and support systems are already in place, and could easily be adjusted to take account of the new service, both in terms of operational requirements and governance issues. S4C also may have access to broadcasting platforms which could be utilised for the new provision.

We are in the middle of a digital revolution, with a lot more to come, and the people of Wales need to be helped to grasp the opportunities. This is not the time to lose the connection with the citizens and consumers, who are driving the revolution by their take-up of the hardware and applications of the digital world. To believe that people don’t understand what’s happening and can’t make their own decisions when confronted by choice is a serious error. The technology is getting cheaper, smaller, more powerful and easier to use. Moreover, their own content is getting cheaper and easier to create. We need to ensure that we have the mechanisms in place, not only to allow us to receive transmissions in the digital age, but the opportunity also to ensure that a reasonab
le proportion in Wales is made by ourselves and about ourselves in the English as well as the Welsh language.

Euryn Ogwen Williams is a media consultant advising on the development of digital technology. Has worked as a producer in ITV, BBC Wales and as an independent; he was S4C’s first Director of Programmes (1981 – 1991) and has since advised the Gaels in Scotland and the Irish on developing television services in lesser used languages.

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