Time for S4C to spread its wings

Bethan Jenkins says problems at the Welsh language channel could provide a springboard for a radical repurposing of the channel so that it offers a range of multi-media services to Welsh-speaking audiences.

It is  a depressing feature of debate in Wales that topics fundamental to the interests of many people often become mired in the trivial, with personalities taking precedence over issues.

So it has come to be with S4/C following the resignation of its chief executive, Iona Jones. What began as an examination into the channel’s role in a changing media landscape and evolving Welsh society has instead been driven up a cul-de-sac over the credentials of the stand-in chief executive.

Some of the immediate post-Iona Jones commentary had focussed on old but still unconvincing arguments over whether S4/C should begin carrying English language content as a means of widening its appeal, even whether the channel should continue to exist at all, or whether it had fulfilled a function from a different age that had now run its course.

S4/C’s viewing figures are usually the only basis for this argument. Such figures often seem to work in a way that either completely flatters a channel or condemns it to ridicule and questions about its viability. It is particularly unfair for S4/C because there appears to be no similar scrutiny for English language public service broadcasting (PSB) in Wales. For example, some of its PSB slots are placed opposite EastEnders, and compiled frequently from archive footage. What size audience does ITV1 Wales achieve for such programming?

S4/C is unfortunate in having had two pieces of misfortune visited upon it at the same time. Warnings that the Westminster Government was to cut its funding came just a few days before Iona Jones’s sudden departure. But talk of English language content (let alone even more radical solutions) is a red herring, principally because the real issue at stake here is viewer engagement.

S4/C’s importance to the language goes far beyond providing unique programming for Welsh speakers. Given its position, it can be used as a tool to encourage wider take-up of – and greater participation in – the language. It is a selling point for the language, a shop window that makes the language attractive and easier to engage with.

What appears to have been missed in this debate over the channel’s future is that Wales has only recently been involved in an exercise where the ultimate and sole aim was greater media engagement from Welsh consumers. The pilot scheme for Independently Funded News Consortia (IFNC) may have been canned by the new Westminster Government, but that does not mean that we cannot go back to the proposals and see which ideas contained within them might be of use to a re-purposed and perhaps restructured S4/C.

For example, the three proposals – from UTV, Tinopolis and the Taliesin alliance – all suggested providing content across a range of media platforms, including online. This would have involved far more than just providing a news site similar to BBC Wales. There would have been a big emphasis on social media, streaming and other self-produced content from visitors, capitalising on the online trends that have become possible through blogging and platforms such as YouTube.

Had the IFNC pilot been allowed to develop to this stage, we would have hopefully seen a varied range of content subjected to editorial standards all too infrequently available elsewhere on the internet, in order to deliver quality and the ‘me, too’ factor so vital in media engagement today.

There is plenty of evidence to underline how important giving consumers the ability to shape their media has become. If readers, viewers, listeners and visitors believe that they can influence – that they, in fact, can claim ownership over – their media, they will as a matter of course engage more closely with it.

Where the IFNC pilot was unable to deliver, S4/C is perfectly poised to inherit. To achieve that end, the channel should begin an internal debate, where it considers less its role as a broadcast provider and more the opportunities that becoming a hub for the Welsh language would present to both it and Welsh speaking consumers.

It could, for example (and provided the regulatory pathway was clear) provide funding for hyperlocal Welsh news, community or specialist interest websites. In this, costs can be kept low and – crucially – highly targeted. WordPress, Tumblr and other open source content management systems are free to use. And instead of providing a lump sum of money that might be used to pay wages, or office rent, S4/C could make available its expertise in growing a commercial media business, providing or paying for training that would allow it to nurture small online ventures so that they stand on their own two feet and prosper.

In such a scenario, as well as encouraging plurality and increased Welsh language use, S4/C would be able to cast itself as an entrepreneurial enabler. If it were to provide clear results from its money, in the form of rising audiences and routes to wealth creation, it would make the job of cutting its funding that much harder for whichever government has to make the decision in years to come.

There would be another advantage if S4/C were to spread its media wings a little wider. At present, it is fairly common for online content to follow on from programming. In many cases this makes sense; the BBC uses its Dr Who website to drive interest in the TV series. However, by building a strong, grass roots media community, ideas can travel upwards, too, from the sites to the TV screen.

It could lead on to stronger programming content and potentially greater wealth creation for the originators. It would also answer the issue of engagement, as it would ultimately mean that anybody involved with the channel, even at arm’s length, could influence its output.

This is not an overnight solution. But it could lead to a new, multi-media S4/C with content so exciting that it not only encourages the participation of Welsh speakers but spurs others to learn so that they may also participate. This potentially opens another avenue, one where S4/C is more closely involved in promoting and supporting Welsh in the education system. As such, it could usher in a new era of public service broadcasting.

Bethan Jenkins is the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for South West Wales

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