John Osmond reports on evidence the IWA is presenting today to the BBC Trust on the future of television in Wales
The shift to high definition television could mean the end of Welsh rugby on BBC2 and as a result fundamentally threaten its finances. At stake is £20 million over four years which accrues to the Welsh Rugby Union from a four-year contract with BBC Wales and S4C. This money is exclusive of network transmissions.
The IWA Media Policy Group has submitted evidence to the BBC Trust as which is consulting on BBC management proposals for cuts resulting from the freezing of the licence fee and new responsibilities imposed on the BBC by the coalition government.
Under one of the proposals, the BBC has proposed creating two HD channels – for BBC1 and BBC2 – but only BBC1HD would allow Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to put their own programmes into the schedule. Under this option BBC2HD would be a single service for the whole of the UK.
The BBC has refused to give any guarantees that BBC2 will still broadcast in standard definition after 2015, despite the fact that more than 40 per cent of BBC Wales output for Wales is screened on BBC2.
The Welsh Rugby Union is extremely worried that as a result BBC2 Wales could lose an opt-out capacity to broadcast Welsh matches to a Welsh audience. Not only would this mean a loss of engagement with Welsh rugby viewers but a substantial cash loss to the Welsh Rugby Union. Roger Lewis, the WRU’s Group Chief Executive, said yesterday that Welsh rugby’s current presence on BBC 2 Wales and S4C plays a pivotal role in ensuring the financial health of the game.
The BBC’s proposals are contained in a document Delivering Quality First which says:
“We do not believe it is affordable or good value for money to convert the BBC2 variants in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to high definition. The current standard definition variants on BBC2 will be maintained at least until 2015 while we review their long-term future. However, we are committed to maintaining the range and quality of the television output we currently provide.”
In their response the IWA Media Policy Group say:
“This is not an acceptable proposition. At best this proposal will result in a large share of BBC Wales output being seen as second best because it would be only available in standard definition. The lack of an opt-out facility on BBC2 would impose a radical limitation on the service for Wales. BBC2 is the channel that allows BBC Wales to extend the range of its programming. Many of these programmes would not be suitable for the BBC1 schedule. For instance, it would become almost impossible to schedule live rugby regularly, a constraint that could reduce the value of rugby rights and have severe implications for the funding of Welsh rugby.”
The IWA’s evidence shows that the BBC’s English language service for Wales has already been hit harder than similar services in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Since 2005-06 the programmes for Wales on BBC1 and BBC2 have dropped by 137 hours, against a drop of 84 hours in Scotland and an increase of 29 hours in Northern Ireland.
In 2010-11 BBC Scotland broadcast 1,110 hours, BBC Northern Ireland 825 hours, and Wales 811 hours. The current BBC Wales English language television service costs only 1.2 per cent of the BBC’s spend on television which totals more than £1.8 billion.
The IWA says the BBC’s proposals imply a return to a level of funding for the English language television service that was last seen in the 1990s. “In our view it is not a level that can sustain a service that is adequate for Wales’s needs, needs that have themselves changed and grown considerably in the intervening period.”
Last month the IWA’s Media Policy Group gave evidence to the National Assembly’s inquiry into the future of the media in Wales in which it asked the Welsh Government to commission “a full review of the needs of Wales – its audiences, democracy, culture and economy – in terms of broadcast and online services, and with regard for developing technologies.”
The IWA’s response to the BBC Trust says that the BBC should ensure sufficient funding for BBC Wales to ensure that there is no reduction in the current scope of its services, though not exempting it from true efficiency savings.
Other recommendation from the group include:
- Strengthening the service in Wales should be a made a priority in the allocation of funds from the BBC’s reinvestment fund.
- The BBC Trust should ensure that the decision to draw the totality of S4C’s funding from the licence fee should not affect the case for further investment in the English language television service in Wales.
- The BBC should complete its investment in Roath Lock in Cardiff Bay in ways comparable to the new BBC centres in Manchester and Glasgow, and as a hub for new digital industries.
- Both S4C and the BBC should explore the potential for operational collaboration with rigour and urgency, so that both Welsh and English language services in Wales can benefit. Such collaboration should include programme production.
- Sustaining the funding of S4C remains important because it is as much an instrument of language policy as of broadcasting policy.