Geraint Talfan Davies wishes more from Wales were at Salford University’s 18th annual Nation and Regions Media Conference in Manchester
One of the surprising features of the 18th annual Nations and Regions Media Conference in Salford Quays earlier this week was the paucity of Welsh representation. With no less than 276 delegates and an agenda that speaks to issues that are central to Welsh media production, one might have expected to see more than just four people from Wales in attendance – two from BBC Wales, Ofcom’s Welsh representative and me. Not a single person from the allegedly ‘vibrant’ Welsh independent sector or from the S4C Authority.
Had more been there they might have heard and pondered an address from the Chief Executive of Channel Four, David Abrahams – only 12 months into the job – that could have formed a template for an application for the post of Chief Executive of S4C. The latter post is currently vacant and will be filled later this year when the DCMS has got around to appointing a chairman to our beleaguered totem.
As Abrahams set out his stall and listed the problems he is dealing with, his agenda bore an uncanny resemblance to the issues that S4C now faces.
His first stress was on the importance of Channel 4 as a ‘critical creative space’ whose job it is “to resist being drawn into the central ground” occupied by the big public service broadcasters, BBC and ITV. Some might object that S4C has a more conservative role of serving a ‘traditional audience’. But it is worth remembering that S4C’s best days were those when it had an outward looking vision of the channel that benefited culturally and commercially from a creative internationalism.
David Abrahams second conundrum was to do with the production sector. Channel 4’s challenge, he said, was “to balance scale with authorship” – again, an issue with which S4C has to grapple – popular formats balanced with distinctive authorial voices. Abrahams thought Channel 4 “must not be dependent on too narrow a range of companies” – in his own words, the ‘superindies’ – and had to ensure that “no new companies or talent are locked out”.
To underline his intent in this regard he announced that Channel 4 is to launch the ‘Alpha Fund’, to support grass roots talent and the first stages of realising creative ideas. This is an issue that S4C, too, is grappling with, following the quite rapid consolidation of Welsh independent companies into a small number of large groupings. Some have argued that that consolidation in Wales has gone too far, although this argument will be tested as S4C tries to deal with the 24.4 per cent cut in its budget. But Abrahams clearly held a view that, although he needs the ‘superindies’, their size does not incline them to be the repositories of innovation and creative diversity.
A third issue that Abrahams listed will ring many bells in Wales. He asserted that the commissioning process at his channel “must add value”, although “never tipping into micro-management”. This has long been an issue between independent producers and S4C. Many production companies have complained that commissioning editors at S4C do not always have the extensive experience that allows them to add value, while the S4C has also been slow to share with producers the audience research that is available to it.
This suggests that S4C needs to develop a much more creative approach to the recruitment and development of the talent that it needs within its own organisation. A question worth asking is, how many S4C commissioning editors have had the benefit of secondments or placements within the commissioning structures of BBC, ITV or Channel 4 in order to expand their own experience and expertise?
One observation that Abrahams offered might give S4C some reassurance – namely, that the linear channels are proving “stubbornly resilient”. But he was careful to balance this with the announcement of further steps to support his channel’s shift into online. The convergence of television and broadband is set to take a crucial step forward this year through the launch of ‘YouView’ by a consortium of British public service broadcasters, and S4C has been slow to join the club. Abrahams announced not only a new £2 million Channel 4 Convergence Fund, but also a set of voluntary regional targets, under which his channel will seek to spend 35 per cent of its expenditure on digital media outside London, a target that will equate to £5 million of annual spend.
This is the kind of strategic shift of expenditure that S4C will have to make as it reassesses the nature of its service. However, while we contemplate that possibility we should not forget that Welsh independent companies, too, can bid for Channel 4 money. They do not have to wait for the creation of a similar S4C fund.
When Channel 4 launched its 4iP Fund some years ago, Wales was slow of the mark, partly because Welsh Government civil servants did not fully comprehend its significance. Welsh companies lost out. One would hope that the impact of the Hargreaves Report on the creative industries in Wales and the subsequent establishment of both the Digital Wales and the Creative Industries Boards – chaired by Ron Jones, Executive Chairman of our largest ‘superindy’, Tinopolis – will mean we will be quicker to seize on the opportunities this time.
That said, Welsh producers do not have to wait on a Creative Industries Board any more than Welsh businesses need have waited on the Welsh Government before bidding for contracts with the Olympic Games. Did any one not know the games were taking place?
All I would say is that the Manchester conference was awash with companies able and eager to take advantage of the new Channel 4 fund. The Welsh indies should have been there.