Welsh broadcasters struggle with adverse statistics

John Osmond reports on an IWA broadcasting debate at the Wrexham Eisteddfod yesterday

S4C is working out its future against a backdrop of Wales suffering a net loss of 3,000 Welsh speakers every year. At the same time the channel’s audience is overwhelmingly made up of older people. The proportion of Welsh speakers aged over 65 tuning in to S4C every week is 73 per cent. However, this compares with just 38 per cent of Welsh speakers aged 35 to 44 who regularly watch the channel on a weekly basis.

These statistics were given to a large IWA audience at the National Eisteddfod yesterday by S4C’s chairman Huw Jones during a debate on Broadcasting in Wales – a crisis in two languages. As he said, “Those who watch S4C tend to be older people who are likely to be more fluent in the Welsh language.”

The statistics were presenting a huge challenge to the channel in constructing a programme schedule to appeal to a diverse range of people who may have conflicting interests. S4C has to appeal to people who live their lives mainly through the medium of Welsh, Welsh speakers for whom the language does not play a big part in their lives, and also for those who do not speak Welsh at all.

The answer was for the channel to constantly produce original programming to ensure that it presented an offering that could not be experienced elsewhere. “This is the only way the Welsh language service will prosper,” Huw Jones said. “Continually finding sources of originality is fundamental to the role of the channel.”

However, he recognised that it was a tough challenge at a time when the channel was facing a 24 per cent cut in its funding from the Department of Media Culture and Sport in London. A speaker from the floor underlined the dimension of the problem when he said that the cuts being passed on to independent producers who made programmes for the channel were even greater, of around 34 to 36 per cent.

Huw Jones acknowledged that a priority for the channel was to establish a new relationship with the independent producers. “We need a more stable relationship with the producers,” he said, although he added, “We need a balance between stability and competitiveness.”

Another issue facing S4C is that from 2013 its funding will come from the license fee and be channeled through the BBC Trust, potentially threatening its autonomy. Some in the audience thought this development opened up the prospect for greater collaboration between BBC Wales and S4C that could simultaneously result in new programme strands and back office savings. Huw Jones said he was keen to work closer with BBC Wales to find savings locally and nationally.

Keith Jones, Director of BBC Wales who is standing down in September to make way for newly appointed Rhodri Talfan Davies, said they should explore ideas for mounting programmes across the channels to bring the nation together in the way achieved by the broadcasting of rugby internationals. He said BBC 1 Wales was proving more popular than ever with a million people tuning in to the channel for at least 15 minutes a week.

However, the background of funding cuts is continuing to be the major determining force in the options facing Welsh broadcasters. Yesterday’s meeting on the Maes in Wrexham came in the wake of publication of research by Ofcom showing how steep has been the decline of spending on English language television programming in Wales. Spending by ITV 1 Wales and BBC Wales on English language television programmes fell from £37 million in 2005 to £25 million in 2010, a drop of 33 per cent in five years. The fall steepened toward the end of the period by 13 per cent between 2009 and 2010, from £28 million in 2009 to £25 million in 2010.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

5 thoughts on “Welsh broadcasters struggle with adverse statistics

  1. “Wales suffering a net loss of 3,000 Welsh speakers every year”

    Where does this stat come from?

  2. I don’t doubt the age profile of S4C’s audience, but Huw Jones is wrong to claim that Wales is suffering a net loss of 3,000 Welsh speakers every year. Quite the opposite. There is a net increase of more than 10,000 Welsh speakers every year. For the figures, see this post on Syniadau.

    Whatever other problems S4C faces, its potential audience of Welsh speakers is increasing. One key question is how to add new programmes that appeal to the profile of these new Welsh speakers.

  3. I understand the 3,000 net loss figure has been estimated by the Welsh Language Board taking into account birth and death rates, emigration and in-migration. It is plainly an estimate and probably needs further investigation. We shall be following this up.

  4. The context of my comments was “the challenges facing S4C”. I should probably have made it clearer that the estimate I was referring to related to fluent Welsh-speakers. The essential point was that these numbers appear to be declining though viewing of S4C is highest among fluent Welsh-speakers, particularly in the older age groups. The challenge for the broadcaster therefore appears to rest in the inevitability, if this is a continuing trend, of seeking to reach out to a wider audience, while not taking its core audience for granted, since to lose them would be disastrous. The most obvious place for S4C to look for new viewers is amongst those fluent Welsh speakers who currently view the channel only occasionally, if at all. The next most obvious place to go is to those less fluent Welsh speakers, whose numbers are very likely to be on the increase. But the challenge rests in the fact that it has to do this – as far as TV is concerned (other platforms may well offer other opportunities) on one channel, and with a single set of programmes, and to do so through the medium of Welsh. Hence, my emphasis on prioritising creativity and originality. The question of at what point a learner becomes sufficiently fluent so that the newly acquired language becomes the, or a, language of preference for media consumption and participation is one on which it would be useful for us all to have a greater understanding.

  5. I’d like to thank Huw for his comment, and in particular that the loss of 3,000 a year was referring to fluent Welsh speakers. That takes away the main ground for my criticism of what he said.

    There have been a number of good comments made there, which have made me think more about the situation. I’d like to offer these suggestions:

    The first would be to appreciate just how fast the number of all Welsh speakers is growing year by year, particularly as a result of education. It is true that these tend to be less fluent, and that young adults tend to watch less television anyway. So if the aim is to further increase viewing figures, the young adult sector (18-35ish) might not appear to be the most promising target to aim at. But the sheer growth of numbers will probably outweigh their tendency to watch less TV; if not now, then certainly within the next five or ten years.

    A second factor is that although there is an outflow of fluent Welsh speaking adults from Wales (Hywel Jones of BYIG reckoned it to be 5,200 a year, with most of them being young adults) the vast majority of these will go to England. One thing that was very encouraging in S4C’s last annual report was the huge increase in weekly reach outside Wales (up 46% to 149,000, and accounting for nearly a quarter of all viewers). Many of these exiles will want to both keep in touch with Wales and remind themselves of what Welsh sounds like, so there is a substantial potential audience there, and perhaps a specific need for “what’s going on in Wales that you might have missed” programmes. Gorau Gwyliwr, Gwyliwr oddi Cartref?

    The third factor, as Huw has reminded us, is the problem of fitting a wide range of programmes aimed at many different age and interest groups onto just one channel. I think the key here is to look at time-shifting and online content. As an example, if S4C does try to specifically address the young adult group, the types of programme that will appeal to them (shall I call it the E4/BBC3 mould?) is not likely to appeal to S4C’s more traditional audience. It’s the sort of thing that would normally need its own channel. It might be worth considering putting together a three hour long daily series of programmes (the sort of thing S4C probably would broadcast if it had another channel, and along the lines of the “channel within a channel” that C2 is to Radio Cymru) but to broadcast it between 3am and 6am with the intention that people would routinely record it and watch it that evening. And also make it available online and for smartphones. The young adult audience is the age group most likely to make use of these alternatives to regular broadcasting.

    I don’t doubt that Huw has quite a job on his hands, but would say this: I think that whatever failings S4C has shown are relatively minor in comparison with how good a channel it is, and how important it has been for the Welsh language. Plenty of what it does is good, and the aim should be to build on that rather than knock it all down and start again.

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