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.

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