Elain Price says new voices are needed to bring greater diversity to the channel’s output
S4C’s present situation and financial hardships are an opportunity for the channel to rise out of the rut it finds itself in. This difficult period should be regarded as a golden opportunity for the channel to re-define its priorities, and change what is not working. If it does this it will emerge from its difficulties all the stronger.
Looking back at S4C’s history and slavishly attempting to emulate its early successes is not the answer for the channel today. However, we can look to the past for inspiration and attempt to re-create some of the spirit which existed during the channel’s early years amongst the S4C staff, the Authority and the audience.
To begin with, we should consider S4C’s commissioning policies and in particular its relationship with the independent producers. The most recent commissioning policies have sought to reduce the number of production companies that provide programmes for the channel. This policy is a complete contrast with the original spirit of the Channels relationship with the independent sector that was established when it was launched in 1981.
The objective has been to reduce the burden on the channel’s commissioners, reduce the amount of support provided by the channel to the smaller companies, secure perceived financial savings and, overall, the production of more hours for the same investment. In the process several of the independent producers have been encouraged to merge and create larger companies which would, in theory, be more able to cope with these changes.
However, the result has been that the independent sector has become inflexible. Today’s situation is comparable to the broadcasting landscape which existed during the 1970s when it was only possible to produce programmes directly through either the BBC or HTV. Today, although there are more of these larger companies than the two established broadcasters of the 1970s, the underlying circumstances are similar. Opportunities to produce programmes for S4C are few and far between unless you go through the large companies which dominate the industry.
As a result there is less diversity and dynamism in the channel’s output. There is an urgent need to provide once again those opportunities for new voices in order to secure variety and new ideas.
S4C needs to open the commissioning process to a new breed of producers and directors. Technological advance has made it much easier for small producers to have access to quality camera and editing equipment. As a result they should be able to create quality content at a reasonable cost to the channel. At the same time they have fewer overheads than the larger companies.
The channel needs to ensure that it has the editorial independence to follow its own path on this matter, even within a partnership with the BBC. If it allows more voices to be heard from a greater variety of communities across Wales – as was the case in the early days– S4C will be much more likely to reflect the realities of today’s modern, diverse Wales.
A second concern is that S4C has been too cautious in its involvement with new technologies and media. In the past it has had considerable success with new technologies, for instance when it formed a business relationship with Sain and Guild Home Video in 1982 to take advantage of the growth of the home video market. Again, in 1997 it invested in the new digital broadcasting developments by purchasing multiplex A and created the S4C Digital Networks partnership.
S4C’s new media policy needs to be much more progressive. The channel has been slow to engage with the internet and mobile phone technology. So far it has failed to create a channel on You Tube and provide content for sale in market places such as iTunes. As a result it has lost the opportunity to adjust and adapt the technology to its own use and is now desperately trying to catch up with the developments within the industry.
The channel needs to engage with the new technology to ensure it is available where audiences of all ages watch television programmes. This is particularly pertinent when you consider that the channel cannot afford to lose the young audiences which it has been so successfully cultivating with the Cyw and Stwnsh provision when they reach their late teens.
This isn’t to suggest that the traditional television channel is no longer important. With all the new media developments and the increased pressure to find a space for the channel upon several new platforms, it would be easy to throw the baby out with the bath-water and neglect the core channel. In the race to gain younger viewers and enhance the audience on new platforms it would be easy to forget that the channel remains the core of the service. It is vital to continue to answer the needs of the regular and more traditionally orientated audience in addition to new audiences.
The key to all of this is for S4C to develop a sustained and continuous dialogue with its audiences to discover their needs and desires. However, all of the responsibility does not sit on the shoulders of S4C. As current, previous and potential viewers we all need to put aside our previous apathy towards the service and be ready to share with the channel our honest impressions and expectations. A stronger partnership needs to be established between the viewers and the channel, so that together we can imagine a new S4C.