Mind S4C’s quality as well as its width

Euryn Ogwen Williams says audience figures are only part of the viewing picture in a world of on demand communications

About this time of year, thirty years ago, there was a Thursday morning ritual in S4C.  The BARB viewing figures for the previous week would be published and the phone would ring. Inevitably, it was Clive Betts from the Western Mail – a journalist who understood precisely what it meant to hold public bodies to account – asking the headline question from the numbers in front of him; “You’ve lost 40,000 viewers from Pobol y Cwm this week, what have you got to say?”

As the days lengthened and the clocks changed, the volatility became more pronounced and although I knew the formula that explained the statistical margins of error that caused such volatility, I realised that Clive knew that ‘n=whatever’ would not make a headline and certainly wouldn’t sell any copies of the Western Mail, so we had to come up with something else.

The something else was a fictional Welsh speaking family: two adults and two children, living in Aberystwyth.  They might have been one of the one hundred lucky families in Wales who had a monitor in their TV sets and a diary to fill. As Welsh-speakers they would have been one of about 25 or so families spread across Wales that held the fate of S4C in their hands.  So, when Clive phoned and asked where the audience had disappeared, I said that it was a lovely night in Aberystwyth and the family decided to take the dog for a walk and, statistically, 20,000 Welsh speakers went with them!

It’s easy to forget that in its first decade S4C was funded from the commercial revenue of the ITV system (which included S4C and Channel 4) and that Channel 4’s programmes were shown on S4C in Wales. That’s why it had to be part of the UK standard measurement system.  Since then the BARB audience measurement system has become more sophisticated as it deals with hundreds of digital channels. However, in this world of unlimited choice, absolute numbers for particular programmes can be meaningless, particularly for a channel like S4C with a specific public service remit. Aggregating numbers over a period and boosting the size of the panel gives a more stable picture. However, we also need to understand that numbers are only a part of the answer in the world of on demand communications.

S4C has recently been tackling the challenges of reduced funding and one of the casualties has been the booster BARB panel that was set up when funding wasn’t a problem. The value of that boost was that it could smooth out some of the volatility from week to week that is inevitable with the basic sample. Ian Jones, S4C’s Chief Executive, flagged this in his lecture at the National Eisteddfod last August and we need to understand now that there are many different ways of assessing the value of content in the digital world.

BARB feels the width, but you can also mind the quality. There is a regular independent qualitative analysis of what viewers think about what they see in the UK.  It produces an ‘appreciation index’ which S4C publishes in its annual report.  It’s not a story for the journalists – it’s good news. Category by category the index shows that the viewers who watch S4C’s programmes appreciate them more than their equivalent on any other channel.

It may not provide good knocking copy, but in the context of how people are using the media, the quality of the product and people’s appreciation of it are the key to getting the numbers. The new commercial world of television understands this very well. Netflix have funded the American House of Cards exclusively for their on-demand service rather than traditional broadcast to tempt me and others to watch on my phone or tablet or smart TV. The whole series is available now to attract new Netflix subscribers and it’s the quality of the exclusive content that does that. The series will not get anywhere near the numbers it would get if it was shown on BBC 1 but it’s value to Netflix is far greater than that.

Public service broadcasting operates in the same world with different ways of assessing value and journalists and politicians need to understand this too. This world is not simple any longer. There are no absolutes when media is consumed anywhere, anytime and on any device imaginable. Believe me, the value of numbers has changed since that four channel analogue world.

Euryn Ogwen Williams was S4C’s Director of Programmes from 1981 to 1991.

11 thoughts on “Mind S4C’s quality as well as its width

  1. If S4C want to learn a lesson about how not to lose an audience, then they need to watch our 2 year old when he is glued to CYW in the morning. He absolutely loves it as our two older boys did, then there is a change in his face, he gets up and walks away.

    What do you expect when S4C decide to put grown up English TV advertising on at the very time when one of their core audiences is watching?

    Come on S4C, admit you have got it wrong in this case, as I have seen many children watching CYW in the morning do exactly the same. What’s the point making a little more in revenue, when you losing many of your core market?

  2. Absolutely right! Bespoke, high-quality programmes on personal platforms are the way forward for Welsh-language ‘television’. And in a global context too, not the present insular paradigm. (For starters, you can’t get catch-up UK TV on mainland Europe. The Anglo-centric media entities are focussed on the US and British Commonwealth markets. S4C hasn’t spotted that as far as I know).

    So, who is willing to identify key, segmented groups of Welsh-speakers (concentrating on current and future users of the kit, design unique, top-quality programmes – or broadcast events – for theme(s)), match the market with niche advertisers and get this show on the road? Not existing broadcasters. They have too much baggage and other vested interests. That great truism “If I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here” was never more apposite in this context.

    Step forward an entrepreneur or a creative co-operative. I’ve already designed the concept which, I initially scoped 5 years ago (pre-Netflix). There are some blindingly obvious markets already, concentrated around one key driver. As EOW says, it’s all about linking that to the platform. Ymlaen!

  3. Programmes seem to vanish from S4C’s “Clic” player as quickly as from iPlayer. Contrast this with Channel 4’s “On Demand” player on which you can view a much wider range of Channel Four programmes going back decades. Copyright and any technical issues need to be overcome to create an on-line Welsh programme archive and, as Syd says, make sure it can be viewed anywhere in the world.

  4. My partner is not Welsh-speaking but has enjoyed several drama series on S4C by using the English subtitles. She found subtitling poor, sentences missing, inaccurate, if not meaningless, translation etc, and now and again the subtitling failed altogether for certain episodes – in one case, the final episode! At other times the subtitles appeared in Welsh. There were no problems with subtitles on other channels. Several phone calls to S4C were unhelpful – the response usually was that there was something wrong with our equipment – the person I spoke to, on more than one occasion, was really dismissive – he gave the impression of not being bothered. I found it strange that subtitles worked fine on other satellite channels – I often use them as I can’t hear diction that clearly.

    I now only watch the channel occasionally, especially Dechrau Canu, but the quality of that programme varies enormously from excellent to very poor. It usually lasts little over 20 minutes of the half an hour scheduled, and perhaps only 4-5 hymns. Many of its programmes include re-hashed hymns from previous years. My partner used to watch DCDC with me, but has given up because of the subtitling issues.

    There were some excellent dramas in the 80s and 90s.

    Nowadays I rarely bother to look at S4C’s schedules. I’m Welsh-speaking, want the language to succeed, but regrettably the channel doesn’t work for me.

  5. I don’t speak Welsh and have no interest in the language at all, which I am currently allowed to do, but for how long I wonder? The role/future for S4C is no concern to me, except as a taxpayer and to realise that in last 10 years it has received over £1Billion and for what? I do watch the rugby coverage on ‘red button’, and confirms my view that its a ‘racket’, as my contributions are being used to subsidise a marginal channel, which only reached prominence in England when it was referred to on ‘Have I got news for You’ as as a channel with no viewers! Why not turn it into a pay to watch channel, like SKY and then the subscibers can have real impact on what’s produced, or not produced as the case may be? It’s clear that S4C/WLB/WBC are all huge beneficiaries of tax payers contributions, and work for benefit of the few and not the many.

  6. Remind us again Howell about the industry your offspring have decided to ‘work’ in and which you like to remind us from time to time….yes banking. A racket if ever there was. They’ve even termed the workers as ‘banksters’ which comes from the word ‘gangsters’. Oh yes! And please remind us how much the UK banking racket has received in government support in the last 5 years! Around £1 trillion and counting not to mention the devaluation of currency; historic low interest rates and a destruction of the UK economy.

  7. Is there a TV industry survey asking which digital channels people actually block in their tuner ‘options’?

    One of the few joys of digital TV is that I can now block all the channels I don’t want to watch – obviously S4C is one of them. I can’t help wondering just how many other people have adopted the same policy?

  8. Hello David. Yes one of the Banks has received public money, however the other one did not. I am sure you are aware that virtually the whole banking system in the western world would have collapsed, and with it a depression akin to 1920/30’s, unless they were kept afloat by liquidity put into system by central banks. I am also sure that you are aware that the City of London has made, and is still making huge contributions to UK economy, and some of the income generated trickles down to Wales. Clearly there were poor investments made, particularly in the sub-prime mortgages in USA, and when they collapsed the whole edifice came down. The Banks were regulated in UK at time by Blair/Brown, and the latter opened the Lehman Brothers office in the City of London with great fanfare. The question above was in relation to S4C which in 10 years has received over a £billion, and one is entitled to ask if that represents good value for taxpayers. All I can say is that in discussion with friends they agree that it is a RACKET for a self-perpetuating minority, of great self-importance to themselves and their few watchers. It would be interesting for the WELSH GOVERNMENT, which seems to want to take over the world, to volunteer to be responsible for the funding in total of S4C out of the block grant it gets from the UK government. This would mean that welsh people could have a direct voice on whether that is a real priority, along with other Welsh language enforcement measures through the Welsh Language Board. I am perfectly happy to pay for SKY because it’s wonderful value, so why not turn S4C into ‘pay for view’, and its huge audiences would surely ‘stump up’ for such a cultural icon, and its value to the Welsh language. What a hope!

  9. Oh, I was so hoping that we could make comments of constructive criticism, without attracting the usual anti-Welsh trolls. Sadly not.

  10. Pobol y Cwm, news, weather and Dewi Llwyd brilliant (all BBC offerings by the way). Rest pretty dross, conveying a misleading vision of Wales (rural, cefn gwlad, YFC, shows etc). There was some excellent drama (Caerdydd, Tipyn o Stad) all gone. Programme about Welsh architecture with Aled Samuel but farcical in excluding English house owners eg when they came to Presteigne nobody spoke (were they all dead?). Alys was quite good and ironically taking the mickey out of Welsh middle class. Teulu was terrible series, acting good but shows completely materialistic self-serving middle class, no concerns for others in sight, is it also ironic?

    Conclusion – BBC to run a Welsh medium channel including commissioning more realistic fare. Also channel in whatever form to represent Wales realistically with English speakers and our problems too not a lot of smug middle-class rubbish!

  11. There used to be Welsh Viewers Panel (run by Ipsos/MORI) that used to provide more qualitative feedback on Welsh television. I don’t know if S4C paid for it in full or just contributed, but apart from BARB it seemed like one of the few panels that could provide non-statistical feedback, particularly in comparing S4C’s output to other channels.

    However it always seemed quite pointless to me, since it only listed the analogue channels. By the time the panel closed, I think I’d been watching digital channels for about 12 years and had used PVRs for 9 years. If that research had been used to study viewing habits of the emerging digital viewer, S4C might have fared much better in the transition to a digital-only channel and it might have better understood its priorities when funding was cut.

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