S4C axes Sunday soap omnibus

Tim Hartley suggests Cwmderi has lessons for future viewing trends

The imaginary village of Cwmderi in west Wales is not the first place you’d go to look for evidence of the latest trend in television viewing. But changes to S4C’s long running soap may offer an insight into where traditional TV is heading. The Welsh language channel has decided to axe the Sunday afternoon omnibus edition.

Now this is quite a big deal for S4C. ‘Pobol y Cwm’ (The People of the Valley) is something of a sacred cow in Welsh language television and celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The cost savings are not insignificant. The omnibus edition is paid for over and above the 10 hours a week the BBC has provided to S4C since 1982 from the licence fee. The Sunday compendium and 6 weeks of ‘additional’ programmes during the summer actually cost S4C  around £3.1 million.

Until last year S4C was funded mainly by a government grant. However, that income has gone down from £100 million in 2010 and is now about £83m, from a mix of licence fee funding and a residual grant from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. So any saving is most welcome. But amid the usual talk of reinvestment in ‘exciting new projects’ which accompanies such announcements was perhaps an indication of a more important trend. Buried in the press release S4C said, “The decision reflects changing viewing patterns experienced by all broadcasters, and the fact that recent episodes are now available online via Clic and the iPlayer.”

Earlier this year S4C began premiering new series online, before its linear TV broadcast, starting with the children’s show ‘Ysbyty’ (Hospital). ‘Pobol y Cwm’ is available on the BBC iPlayer as well as on S4C’s own catch up service Clic and its iPhone app.

S4C’s online usage has increased significantly over the past few years, as with other channels. In 2009 S4C had 1.1 million online viewing sessions, which increased to 2.8 million by 2012. When the next set of data is published it’s likely that we’ll see this trend continuing.

Mediatique’s recent report for the BBC Trust and Ofcom’s Communications Market Report shows that traditional TV is far from dead. It says the iPlayer accounts for just over 2 per cent of the BBC’s TV viewing. On-demand consumption of TV programmes will more than double by 2017. Time shifted viewing accounts for around 10 per cent of the total. While online viewing across the UK remains a small percentage, Nielsen has shown that in the United States the proportion is growing, and especially among the younger audience.

In global terms S4C’s audience is inevitably small, Nonetheless, in the case of a channel which has been crucified over its poor ratings, 2 per cent of that audience is quite a lot. More than half a million viewers tune into S4C every week across the UK, including 130,000 viewers who tune in to ‘Pobol y Cwm’. There are only half a million Welsh speakers in Wales. Every little helps as they say. So it appears the Welsh channel has decided that it can risk offending a proportion of its core audience because so many of them are actually getting their dose of Valley gossip online or by watching it time shifted on their PVRs or Sky+ boxes. Is this the start of a trend for the smaller channels? After all BBC3 is being closed down and as the Trust says, is being “reinvented as a new and innovative online service”.

The director of YouTube Latin America recently predicted that the online video audience will surpass linear TV watching by 2020. That might be a bit optimistic. Yet could little S4C be showing a more sophisticated understanding of its own audience and, by embracing early the gradual migration to online viewing, be taking a rather bold step in that direction? Either that or it just has to save £3 million. I hope it is the former.

Tim Hartley is Chair of the Royal Television Society, Wales. This article first appeared in the Society’s magazine ‘Television.’

5 thoughts on “S4C axes Sunday soap omnibus

  1. I have no idea why Pobol y Cwm has to be repeated through the week with subtitles, then shown again as an omnibus on a Sunday. Whilst accepting the claimed 130,000+ audience, why not just advertise the fact that: a. subtitles can be put on whilst it is shown in Welsh through using the red button; and b. it is available in Clic 24 hours a day.

  2. There is a point I have been itching to make on S4C’s move to Carmarthen so I shall attempt to crowbar it in here.

    It is now the norm that Welsh is considered a national language given its equal status under law and long may that continue.

    However, the move to Carmarthen represents a significant development beyond the issue of finance. I have for a long time questioned the wisdom of pursuing a monocultural policy regarding the Welsh language. If the Welsh language is to gain and sustain support, given the figures are still falling, then it needs a far more culturally flexible approach than is currently on show. The multi-cultural nature of Wales is not confined to ethnic minorities. Dennis Balsom’s ‘Three Wales model’, now some 29 years old, included the area of British Wales which includes South Pembrokeshire, the South Coast from Bridgend to the border and the Welsh Marches all the way up to Alyn and Deeside.

    Pobl y Cwm, of course, is the perfect bridge between Y Fro and what Balsom called “Welsh Wales”, roughly comparable to the Glamorgan and Gwent Valleys, since these are the next main geographical targets of language policy. If Welsh were well established in these two regions, then it would be well on the way to success.

    What appears to be invisible, in both languages, is British Wales. The media appears comfortable with rural and post-industrial Wales but not with urban Wales. Before I ramble on for too long, my point is that Cymreictod, the culture of the Fro, does not seem to know what to make of cities like Cardiff and does not seem capable of adapting its culture to its new environment. It prefers to hide behind the cultural barricades and not engage.

    There are therefore two factors which explain S4C’s move. The first is the failure of language policy to prevent decline in its traditional strongholds; the second is the failure of the language to establish itself with roots in cultures other than Cymreictod. The only logical conclusion therefore is to retreat from Cardiff back to the Fro, in part to help reverse the decline in areas such as Carmarthen but also it is a defeat for a culture that believed it could transpose itself onto other cultures which have no reason to change and nor do they wish to.

    I am aware that my reasoning is a little disjointed but I think there’s something in it.

  3. @ Rhobat Bryn Jones
    I don’t think that Welsh language policy is the primary cause of the continued decline of Welsh in traditional strongholds. Lots of reasons including the exponential growth of internet content and communication and TV channels play a part. In any case what sort of Welsh language policy would be required to deliver an attitude of – we’re going to learn Welsh – in those who are moving into those areas.

    I can agree that S4C’s ( and Radio Cymru) policy/strategy hasn’t been fit for purpose if the purpose is to promote the embracing of Welsh by non-Welsh speakers. It’s a better fit if the purpose is to provide an aging mostly rural Welsh speaking demographic with programmes they like. How many radio listeners under 65, station hopping listen longer than the absolute minimum if they chance upon an adequate rendition of a Welsh song that had it’s day in the 1930s?

    If promoting Welsh to non Welsh speakers is the aim then S4C probably needs to produce 90% of it’s programmes targeting youth up to the under 40s. But that strategy will need other organisations, institutions and government to co-ordinate efforts.

  4. @CapM

    Thank you for your interesting and insightful comments.

    I don’t believe I argued that Welsh language policy was the cause of the decline in the Fro but rather that it had failed to halt it. We had a Welsh Language Board from 1993 to 2012 and a Welsh Language Commissioner since as well as a National Assembly for the last 15 years. It is therefore surprising that all of the effort that has gone into promoting the Welsh language has failed to prevent a 6% drop in the number of Welsh speakers in Carmarthenshire, significant because it means that Welsh is no longer the majority language there.

    Regarding the issue of attracting audiences to any television channel, it is complex and S4C is no exception. But my point, which goes beyond television, is not the distinction between Welsh speakers and non-Welsh speakers but rather between the different cultures that exist in both languages. There can be Welsh and English speakers who belong to the same culture and there can be Welsh speakers who belong to different cultures; the same is true for English speakers. This point is worth making because a great deal of effort goes into persuading us that to be a Welsh speaker is to belong to the culture of Cymreictod, whose home is the Fro, and whose flagship is the Eisteddfod. This is quite simply untrue however sincerely expressed.

    There are Welsh speakers who require programmes whose point of reference is Cymreictod and, as taxpayers, should receive it. But this is far from representing the whole of the Welsh speaking population. I only have to go back two generations for my family’s connection with the Fro. My grandmother, a Welsh speaker, was born and brought up in Bryncrug near Tywyn. But she was not chapel, she was Anglican. And she did not move to the valleys when looking for work but went straight to Cardiff where there was a better availability of work for young women, in her case it was into service as a maid in a doctor’s house in Newport Road. So according to the traditional models of the Fro and the Valleys so beloved by the Welsh media, my grandmother did not exist. Somehow moving to Cardiff means that she passed out of Wales and into a land beyond. My point therefore is for us to develop a better understanding of the different cultures that make up Wales and for those cultures to be available in both languages.

  5. Can someone please explain how an omnibus (i.e. repeat) programme can cost so much that it makes financial sense to axe it? Is it the repeat fees for actors, scriptwriters etc.? Or did has the BBC write a contract that provided them with megabucks? Or some other factor? Whichever way, it makes no sense and illustrates why London government cannot be trusted to run broadcasting in our country.

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