What is S4C for?

Euros Lewis reports on a conference that declared this question needs to be answered before the channel can discover a new direction

Only by opting for a complete change of direction is there any possibility of imagining a new future for S4C. This was the main outcome of a conference held at Ceredigion’s Theatr Felin-fach a week ago to ‘imagine a new S4C’. Nobody present doubted the sincerity of S4C’s leaders. However most questioned whether officers realised how radical a change of direction the channel needs to take if it is to re-build a creative relationship with our communities. In fact, most believed that station managers were intent on following the same old road, albeit with new enthusiasm.

What is S4C’s purpose? This question is fundamental to the discussion. Although Gwynfor Evans’ stand of 30 years ago was predicated on the belief that a dedicated Welsh language service would be central to ‘saving the language’, that specific aim has never been formally acknowledged within S4C’s public broadcasting remit. A first step towards imagining a new, dynamic S4C should be the writing of a new constitutional manifesto. This should clearly set out the channel’s aims and responsibilities. Such a document would define S4C’s role not just within the Welsh media but within the whole realm of nation building.

In the conference’s opening presentation Elain Price, of Swansea University, focussed on S4C’s early innovation. Audiences and producers alike drew confidence from the positive enabling and mentoring mindset of the young channel.

Rhodri ap Dyfrig, of Aberystwyth University, argued that social networking media has displaced television within the lives of young people. The conference’s imagination was stirred by his report of how Basque television executives are investing heavily in new media experimentation thus ensuring that the minority language is at the forefront of new developments.

Television and film director Peter Edwards was scathing in his criticism of the stasis produced by a too cosy relationship between S4C and its principal independent suppliers. In this unadventurous stalemate Wales’ potential of young creative talent was being frozen out. This view was strongly endorsed by the young filmmaker Owain Llŷr and other filmmakers that were present.

Since S4C was established, almost 30 years ago, the science of language planning has developed greatly. Language planning is essentially holistic in its approach – cutting across cultural and political boundaries, ensuring that historically divorced social forces find a new co-operative relationship that works positively on behalf of the language.

In the shaping of a new Wales, S4C needs to break out of its isolated media tower. It needs to fully engage with a specifically Welsh discourse. It needs to discover a platform that will allow it to contribute creatively to a world-wide multicultural norm that is not present in the UK media model. Before tackling questions of what companies produce what programmes in whatever of scheduling configuration, the question of ‘What is S4C for?’ needs to be answered openly and honestly, and in depth. And it needs to be asked in the here and now of post-devolution Wales.

The moment S4C re-engage themselves with the obvious creative potential of our young people is the moment we’ll know that they have recognised they face a  crossroads and have opted for radical change. BBC founder Lord Reith spoke of the audience as ‘Them’. S4C’s potential should be centred on ‘Us’.

Euros Lewis is Artistic Director of Theatr Troedyrhiw and a Fellow at University of Wales Trinity St David’s Centre for Bilingual Higher Education. A full report of the conference Imagining a new S4C is being prepared by Gareth Ioan, Chief Executive of language planning consultancy Iaith and will be published this Friday, 8 April.

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