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.’

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