New era of TV collaboration ahead

John Osmond reports on a conference where Welsh broadcasters were told to move on from internecine warfare

S4C will be presented with an “honourable” financial settlement by the BBC to enable it to plan for an ambitious level of operation after 2013 when the bulk of its funding will come from the licence fee. Speaking at an IWA broadcasting conference in Cardiff yesterday Professor Elan Closs Stephens, the BBC’s Trustee for Wales, said, “We as a Trust have reached a point where there will be an honourable offer made to S4C.”

An announcement will be made next Monday following the monthly meeting of the Trust. Professor Stephens said it was now time to move on from the “internecine war” that had engulfed the BBC and S4C over the Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s ambush of S4C in September last year. That was when the Department’s Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that S4C’s budget would be cut substantially, by 36 per cent by 2015, and in future come mainly from the licence fee rather being ring-fenced in legislation and paid directly by the Westminster government.

This has raised issues about the channel’s future editorial and operational independence with the prospect of it being answerable to the BBC Trust.  However, the S4C’s chairman Huw Jones said he was confident that it could keep its independence while reaching a practical new partnership with BBC Wales. He also announced that S4C’s new chief executive, Ian Jones would take over the reins at the channel from next April. In the meantime acting chief executive Arwel Ellis Owen would remain in post.

Ian Jones began his television career with S4C in the early 1980s prior to working with London Weekend Television and as a producer and director in the independent sector. He returned to S4C in 1990 as director of co-productions and later moved to the Scottish Media group in the late 1990s. He is currently working in New York as senior vice president of National Geographic Television and Film. His appointment was made a month ago but negotiations over his release from his current job prevented a formal announcement until yesterday.

Professor Closs Stephens said yesterday that broadcasting in Wales was now at a new starting point. She said its role in programme delivery, developing audiences, and being an essential part of nation building had gone out of focus in the past year.  Now there were challenges ahead, including the UK Government’s forthcoming Communications Bill and political changes in Scotland, that demanded a new strategic approach in Wales.  Referring to the SNP Scottish Government’s demands for greater control over broadcasting, and the impact of the result of its independence referendum, she said, “Scotland will have an influential bearing on the way our institutions will develop.”

The conference chair  Ian Hargreaves, Professor of Digital Economy at Cardiff University, pressed both S4C’s Huw Jones and Rhodri Talfan Davies, Director of BBC Wales, on how far they would collaborate in future. He asked whether they would contemplate moving  together into a new joint headquarters. “We are open to any practical suggestion that will deliver benefits to the screen,” responded Huw Jones, while Rhodri Talfan Davies said, “There is a whole lot of economic and creative sense in that option. We need to refresh our technology base. There would be a lot of benefits in creating a creative community on a single site.”

Guy Phillips, Editor of ITV’s Regional News, said the company was committed to sustaining the current levels of Welsh news, currently running at four hours a week,  and other programming occupying one-and-a-half hours.  He said the channel was piloting a new hour length early evening news bulletin that would combine UK, international and local news between 6pm and 7pm. In England the pilots assumed that each would be given 20 minutes. However, in Wales the option being considered would be 20 minutes for UK news followed by 30 minutes for Welsh news and 10 minutes of Welsh current affairs.

He revealed that ITV’s coverage of the rugby world cup was delivering huge audiences in Wales. Last Saturday’s semi-final between Wales and France had delivered an 88 per cent share of the available audience which represented 918,000 viewers in Wales. When these were joined by the 60,000-plus people who watched the game in the Millennium Stadium it meant that a million Welsh people, a third of the nation, had watched the game.

Glyn Mathias, Chairman of Ofcom’s Content Board for Wales, said he took it as read that in the new franchise round for Channel 3 there would be a distinctive ITV franchise for Wales, separating it from its present link with the West of England. He said there needed to be a differentiated and greater pubic service broadcasting obligation for the Channel 3 operations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland from those in the English regions.

Blair Jenkins, former Director of Broadcasting at Scottish Television and Head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland,  said the days when Scotland merely opted out of UK programming for a few dedicated programmes of it’s own were rapidly coming to an end. “The case for the devolution of broadcasting grows ever stronger,” he said. “The opt-out model is a relic of the analogue age. It removes rather than extends choice.”

Jenkins, who chaired the independent Scottish Broadcasting Commission whose final report was endorsed unanimously by the Scottish Parliament in 2008, said the future would be a Scottish Digital Network which would broadcast at least four hours a day at peak times funded by £75 million drawn from the license fee. He said that if necessary the fee would have to be increased. At £145.50p it was  relatively low compared with the equivalent in other European countries and regions. He said Hesse in Germany, and Valencia in Spain – both comparable in size and population to Scotland – invested at least £100 more in their public service television.

He said Scotland needed its own dedicated service because the BBC would always remain, necessarily a UK-focused service while the future of STV was uncertain. The coming referendum in Scotland, likely to be held in the Autumn of 2014, would change the terms of the debate.

Bethan Jenkins, Plaid Cymru’s South West Wales AM who is chairing a National Assembly task and finish group into the future of broadcasting, said there was a devolution paradox around the Welsh press and media. “At the same time as we are creating stronger political institutions in Wales both are weakening,” she said.

It was announced at the conference that the IWA is establishing a Wales Media Policy Group to track the rapidly moving developments that are underway. The IWA’s Chair Geraint Talfan Davies, said there was a danger that Wales would continue to lose out at Westminster so long as consultations were held in private. “We need a durable mechanism to ensure public dimension to these debates otherwise we will not be able to apply any effective pressure,” he said. “We have to shift this crucial policy arena into the public domain.”

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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