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.

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