The future of Welsh language television for S4C

Ian Jones outlines the state of play for the funding of Welsh language Television

Earlier this month, a parliamentary debate on the future of S4C was held in Westminster. We heard members of all parties participating in the debate, and showing full support for the Channel, – but even more importantly, expressing a desire for the UK Government to provide sufficient funding to sustain S4C after the current funding arrangement has ended. Unfortunately no assurance was forthcoming from the Minister at the time, although he spoke very warmly about the Channel and its programmes.  I’m sure that many of the Welsh Members will continue to press DCMS in order to ensure a stable future for Welsh-language television broadcasting.

Right now, we stand at a point when the future shape of public service broadcasting throughout the UK is under discussion.  I am very eager to remind all those involved in shaping the new future of UK broadcasting that S4C is the only Welsh language channel in the world. A channel that delivers content and services in Welsh that provide entertainment, information and inspiration and a channel that is at the centre of the everyday lives of the people of Wales. That is what makes us unique and valuable, and that is what we have to protect.

Many of our audience may not understand the root cause of current financial concerns, since they may be under the impression that the period of instability in the history of the Channel is over. The difficulty lies in the way in which S4C is funded.  At present, 90% of our funding comes from the licence fee, via the BBC Trust, and that will continue until April 2017. That equates to £76 million. A further 8% comes directly from the UK Government, and that has been pledged to us until April 2016.  We don’t know what will happen to the contribution from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport thereafter, and since the BBC’s own Charter is due to expire at the end of 2016, we don’t know the future fate of that source of funding either. This is what led the Members of Parliament to call for a review of the arrangement to give us a promise of “sufficient funding”, as provided by the Public Bodies Act 2011.

We are currently in a period of excitement and success in the history of S4C. Our audience is appreciative; our world-wide reputation is growing.  I, as Chief Executive, should be laying the foundations for the next five years by encouraging and nurturing talent, by commissioning new scripts and developing projects for the future. The industry requires detailed planning way in advance. But unfortunately, that isn’t possible to the extent that I would wish since we do not know what our budget will be.

Over the last few years we have cut our coat according to our cloth in a prudent and effective way. The cuts made have meant a reduction in funding of 36% to us in real terms. We have cut the number of staff from 200 to around 125, and the programming budget has had to be reduced from £83 million to £65 million, but I’m confident that the cuts haven’t undermined the on-screen provision thus far.  Should further cuts be imposed upon us, it could endanger the services offered by the channel. That is what is now at stake, and that is why I am instigating what I hope will be a public debate on the future of Welsh-language television broadcasting.

Relocating our headquarters to Carmarthen will produce further savings, but at the same time it will be a huge boost to the local economy. We know from an earlier study that any investment by the television industry in a particular area brings further economic value; every £1 spent brings a total economic impact of almost £2. Since S4C was founded 30 years ago, Wales has benefitted to the tune of £2.2 billion through S4C – and that is additional money from the coffers of central Government, above and beyond what Wales would otherwise have received. That is the sum and substance of the economic benefit that has come as a result of S4C.

We are confident that the service itself will also benefit from the move to Carmarthen and the hope is that the new excitement will have a beneficial impact on the language and culture in the area. But I don’t want the rest of Wales to think for a second that the whole financial benefit will be channelled to one area from now on. We will keep a presence in Cardiff and Caernarfon, and we will continue to commission programmes from producers throughout Wales. Our service will continue to reflect all four corners of the country, and S4C’s spend will permeate all areas.

Everyone knows about the success of our recent commission Y Gwyll / Hinterland, with the broadcast rights being sold to BBC4 and the programmes being purchased by BBC Cymru/Wales. It was a very interesting partnership, including a source of funding within the Welsh Government and the European MEDIA Fund. The series has been sold to broadcasters from around the world including DR in Denmark, who are the producers of Borgen and The Killing. Due to the changes being made to the broadcast pattern of Pobol y Cwm, we hope to be able to redirect some of the financial savings to create further quality drama.

Unlike other channels, we always have to consider the impact and influence of our service on the Welsh language and economy. That, of course, is in addition to the usual responsibility of measuring value for money, and sufficient viewer appreciation. And on top of all of this, we are expected to be everything to everyone. Today, measuring the size of the audience isn’t as simple as it was previously, since the world has changed with all of the platforms that are now available, and the opportunities to view at different times becoming more numerous.

The relationship between us and the BBC Trust is an excellent one, and the reason for that is that there are formal agreements in place, but those agreements are about to expire, and it is time for us to pave the way for a new period.

So what does paving the way mean in this respect? In my opinion, it is crucial that S4C is part of the discussions about the new BBC Charter – after all, the Charter review process could have a huge impact on us.  It is essential that we have a voice in the matter, and receive a guarantee that there will be sufficient funding available.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has a legal obligation to conduct a review of S4C’s work before the end of this year. At the moment, there is no sign of that happening; therefore, rather than waiting for the discussion to start elsewhere, we in S4C set about conducting our own review to try and establish what ‘sufficient funding’ will need to cater for as we move forward.  The document, S4C: The future of Welsh language television which we have published today, explains our needs as a public service broadcaster with responsibilities beyond the television screen.  I hope the content will be an important contribution to the public debate.

I very much hope that it will be seen as a reasonable starting point.  While it is naturally impossible to put exact values on what investment will be needed to maintain S4C services and to future-proof our provision, it is essential to focus now on the inevitability of the need to evolve in an ever changing world.

After four years of cuts and two years of rejuvenating the service, I am very eager for the next period in S4C’s history to be one where we get the certainty of sufficient funding.

The debate about the nature of our services and how they should be funded will have a significant impact on the future of S4C, the Welsh language and our economy.  That debate has now begun.

Ian Jones is the Chief Executive of S4C. This piece comes ahead of a speech to be made today at the Urdd Eisteddfod.

6 thoughts on “The future of Welsh language television for S4C

  1. Now I know many of you will want yet another high brow discussion detached from reality, but before you do I’ll just say this…

    No matter how many years pass I still cannot believe that there is just shy of a hundred million pounds a year of license fee money going to what is now essentially a digital channel (tucked way up in the high numbers alongside the likes of ‘Dave’ and ‘BBC parliament’ on Virgin tv), watched by few and which uniquely is still allowed to have commercial adverts…. largely in English as if to add insult to injury.

    I appreciate the channel has linguistic promotion aims but is it actually meeting them? After all its been around for decades now and viewing figures are still tiny. Has anybody ever sat down and thought just how many Eisteddfods and Welsh teachers that sort of money could pay for on an annual basis?

  2. S4C is fortunate to have a Chief Executive of the calibre of Ian Jones. What is refreshing about his perspective is that he can identify the needs of Welsh language broadcasting without reaching for the “entitled because we are victims” card that too often gets played in discussions about the Welsh language.

    I thoroughly enjoyed Y Gwyll and it was one of the few ‘must see’ programmes to be shown on S4C for a while, the previous one for me being Pen Talar.

    I can’t help thinking however that S4C’s move to Carmarthen represents a retreat to being, culturally, a regional broadcaster. Those who advance language policy in general seem to do so on the basis that Cymreictod is the only recognised culture and that if you don’t belong to this, you don’t belong to the language.

    However, to finish on a positive note, I believe that programmes like Y Gwyll represent the future in that we don’t aim to produce dramas that are for domestic consumption only but have an eye to the international market as well. Given the limited resources that are available currently, S4C is to be congratulated on producing a programme of such a high standard. Personally, I would like to see DCI Mathias move to Merthyr but, as the saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  3. Just out of curiosity: who pays for the Scottish Gaelic channel, what does it cost and how many people watch it? Presumably the Irish Republic has a Gaelic channel. What does that cost per viewer year? What about minority-language channels in other countries? Let’s have comparative data to assess S4C rather than empty boosting. We might learn something.

  4. S4C could boost its constituency in other parts of the UK by enhancing it`s transmission by other means.

    As a Welsh Londoner on Freeview, I am unable to receive S4C, missed Y Gwyll completely, and had to watch (and thoroughly enjoy, as did many English friends) Hinterland on iPlayer.

    Many people now access content via digital streaming: I hope S4C will explore new media to reach their wider potential audience; I am heartened to hear that it, too, will be available on iPlayer at some stage.

  5. Food for thought – TG4 in Ireland provides a 24 hour channel with a subvention of 34 million euros. It is run by a young team from a small studio in Connemara west of Galway. Could not the S4C head honchos take a leaf from their book?

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