What Tony said – what Wales replied

Angela Graham calls for Wales to respond to Tony Hall after his recent speech on TV in Wales.

In his article ‘What Does the Future Hold for TV in Wales?’ in the Western Mail on May 15th 2014, Tim Hartley drew attention to the BBC Director General, Tony Hall’s recent Cardiff speech in which he acknowledged that English language television in Wales has been ‘eroded’ over the last ten years. But whereas from this starting point Tim, appropriately enough, goes on to survey the web of relationships between the three channels, embryonic local stations, Pinewood Studios and the Welsh creative industries, I want to hover over English language television in Wales itself because I am concerned that many of us are missing the significance of some of the DG’s statements.

Tony Hall positioned his admission about paucity of provision in the context of financial cutbacks and devolutionary momentum. He ended by issuing a challenge and an invitation.

The invitation:

“Let me say there are no easy solutions here. Our recent proposal to close BBC Three as a broadcast channel tells you something about the hard financial choices that the BBC currently faces.
But I do believe the BBC will need to think hard about how it strengthens its support for national and regional self-expression as it prepares its case for a new charter. And I would like to invite you all tonight to be a part of the debate

If BBC 3 can be closed in this way then swathes of English language provision in Wales might face the same fate. The BBC might be duty-bound to do that, might it not? Especially if the Welsh don’t seem to mind that their English language service is eroding.

Yet as Hall stated, “Each and every week in Wales, more than a million viewers tune into BBC Wales’ television services for Wales – the highest figures in a decade”.

The audience has grown in the same period that the service has eroded. So if the service improves and increases will the audience be larger too? Or is that the wrong question?

The challenge:

“Tell us how we can continue to improve and deepen the service we offer Wales; how we can continue to ensure that Wales can see itself and talk to itself on its own terms in a digital, interactive world; and how we can continue to take the very best talent produced and developed here in Wales and place it on a global stage”.

To me, the most important element is this one: ‘to improve and deepen the service we offer Wales’. I say that because I note another small but significant part of this speech:

“Despite BBC Wales’ very real success, we must also acknowledge that English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade”.

That ‘from and for Wales’ is what counts, with the phrase ‘from Wales’ presumably being directed at the network. We cannot be complacent about the welcome success of network product. Although that benefits Wales in many important ways it is, more often than not, content which is not culturally specific to Wales. It could be made anywhere, and we in the business in Wales don’t need to be told we have world-class skills – it’s not news to us; it’s only news to those who didn’t know us. Rhodri Talfan Davies, Controller of BBC Wales, referred in an interview on ‘The Wales Report’ to the ‘paradox’ of great success on the network and a weakening service for Wales.

What we want is not success in one field or the other but success in both, and in both English and Welsh. We will not get that without full engagement with the obstacles. Wales must respond to Tony Hall. We lack a forum in which to have the debate. Now is the time to develop one so that the quality of thinking from Wales is sophisticated and strategic ahead of the BBC Charter Renewal circus which awaits us.

At a meeting of the Royal Television Society on the 15th May, the CEOs of the three Wales-based broadcasters outlined the constraints and opportunities before them. Working in partnership with appropriate entities; aiming for success outside Wales with Welsh stories; growing network spend in Wales; showing Wales as it really is; audience pride in quality TV from Wales – all three shared these aims. Tim Hartley asked if there was any more going on than ‘rallying the troops and rattling the tins’ and the fact is that having noble sentiments and laudable ambitions is not enough. Those who already agree will agree anyway. There is a case to be made as to why English language television in Wales deserves a bright future. That case can’t be made without the engagement of the public and professionals. So how is that going to happen?

Angela Graham is a freelance television producer and a member of the IWA’s Media Policy Group.

15 thoughts on “What Tony said – what Wales replied

  1. ‘Tim Hartley asked if there was any more going on than ‘rallying the troops and rattling the tins’ and the fact is that having noble sentiments and laudable ambitions is not enough’.
    This a question others may also be asking.
    Producing so-called ‘broadcast quality’ televison is much too expensive and the ‘professionals’ doing it charge far too much for their services. New technology, advances in equipment and distribution via the Internet mean that many of these people are ‘disintermediated’ . It should allow other freelance independent (like Angela Graham) but no less professional providers to enter the arena of programme making – this may or may not encourage more Welsh and more Wales-based content. I would have thought that the audience is less interested in content just because it is from Wales or about Wales than in ‘good watchable’ programmes. Coverage of news and politics in Wales is probably on a par with other ‘smallish’ audiences but it would be interesting to know how much more coverage is given to say for example an American state by its own local media and by the networks.

  2. In direct answer to Angela’s final question, the core of this campaign needs to have the political support of the Assembly behind it. It is not sufficient for our politicians to argue that this is not a devolved matter and therefore beyond their powers. It is their responsibility to represent our aspirations and seek to realise them where the support exists.

    The question then is who is going to make the case to the Government and Assembly. A good place to start is with the IWA. Is this not after all what we are for? The IWA could organise a conference for the public and professionals , day long or weekend long, to flush out the issues that the issues that need to be addressed. A plan of action would need to follow that if it is not to be another fruitless talking shop.
    One option would be to initiate a campaigning group.

    What I feel is needed from our Government and recognised by the BBC in London is a commitment to an English language service of the same kind as that is shown towards S4C. No-one would dare suggest to S4C viewers that they should make do with English language programmes, therefore we should not accept the view that as English language viewers, we should make do with programmes from England. I also think there is a potential benefit for S4C from having more Wales programmes in that raising the level of awareness of our society among ourselves could engender an interest in Welsh language programmes. One only has to see how Y Gwyll has helped to bridge the linguistic divide to see the potential.

    But a Channel 4 Wales would need to have a long term commitment to audience development and establishing audience loyalty in order to be successful. Viewers who get a piecemeal service are likely to see it as not being reliable enough to invest their loyalty in. If the IWA can facilitate the presentation of the case to the Assembly in order to win cross-party long-term support for the project, then we will have made a step in the right direction.

  3. As a fluent Welsh speaker, I enjoy the English programmes more than their Welsh counterparts. Whilst the English programmes are enjoyed by all, sadly, in my opinion the Welsh ones seem to be targeted at the elite. A small cabal of middle class Welsh speakers who enjoy the fact that its an exclusive club excluding non speakers and others whose Welsh isn’t up to scratch. S4C was good when 1st launched, having an eclectic mix of programmes for all. Now I rarely watch it, its sterile, nondescript ultra Welsh diatribe is unfortunately confirmed in it’s ever decreasing viewing figures.

  4. Here’s a funny thing. Digital technology makes filming, reproduction and transmission cheaper – just as it makes newspaper production cheaper. It’s called the “information revolution” I seem to recall. Yet newspapers are going broke and the broadcasters are pleading poverty. Could it be that – just as in investment banking – the star workers and managers are snaffling the money that could have gone into producing programmes? What would the effect be on BBC and S4C if everyone earning more than, say, £150k a year took a 50 per cent pay cut? How much would that save?

  5. @Gareth- fydde modd i chi ddweud pa raglenni dydych chi ddim yn hoffi? Rwy’n amau’n fawr bod chi’n siarad Cymraeg o gwbl.

  6. @ Ben S

    Nid Gareth dw i ond does dim llawer wi’n ei wylio ar S4C. Mwynheais i Y Gwyll a Pen Talar ond beth arall sydd yn werth ei weld? Mae’r rhan fwya o’r raglenni yn cael eu hanelu at y Fro hyd y gwela i a wi ddim yn byw fan ‘no.

  7. Although the likes of Lord Hall may be sincere – and some individuals can be quite generous with their time – when it comes down to actual commissions, the money is spread among the existing members of The Club.

    The best advice to a young Welsh producer, director, or writer is, sadly, ‘Leave Wales.’ You stand more chance of meeting real decision-makers in LA, and, although there are corporate mindsets and old boy/girl networks there as well, they seem to matter less than original ideas.

  8. The basic message behind Angela’s article is that there is, essentially, no Welsh media industry lobby, certainly not one that is organised and can unite behind a given strategic position (whatever that might be). On one level this surprises me a little, given the preponderance of the media in Cardiffian circles, but perhaps it shouldn’t given the stifling corporatism of the BBC and the relative absence of a free market in the Welsh context (if you’re ambitious, want to get on, and want to make a lot of money, conformity with the London corporate line is a pre-requisite – and the rewards for doing so, significant). It seems to me, from what Angela says, that the industry is very much ‘divided and ruled’, and that is very much through remunerative and ‘career’ levers in my opinion.

    Clearly the answer to her final question is fairly obvious therefore – organise a lobby, etc., etc., with all that follows logically from that statement. Rhobat picks up this idea in his comments, but I’d only differ from his position in one respect: I’m not sure people from outside an industry, a community group, a social collective, etc., can ever create a lobby on that group’s behalf – a lobby (a body of commonly held visions and objectives) either exists or it doesn’t. Angela’s question has to be directed at (and answered by) the professionals who work in that industry, some of whom may well be IWA members and readers of this website, but by no means exclusively. Do you have a commonly held vision and objectives or not? Do you exist as a body? Do you wish to be heard?

    Now, should we be talking about a lobby of media CONSUMERS in Wales, I think there is greater scope for this forum to provide answers and ideas and possibly action in the way Rhobat describes, since I guess we are all members of that group in one way or another. Personally, I have views aplenty on what I would like the industry to provide and I suspect I could make common cause with many others on the basics. I must say up front however, that I’m not much interested in having that vision compromised and diluted by the realities and practicalities of the industry and the public finances – that’s the job of the policy makers and service providers… put another way, I have no interest in lobbying interests or limitations which are not mine…

    Perhaps, therefore, Angela should take her specific industry question to an industry forum and the IWA could mobilise around a Welsh media consumer position?

    Dydw i ddim yn gwybod, gyda llaw, sut ar y byd mae rhywun yn gallu disgrifio Pobl y Cwm, Rownd a Rownd, Sioe Tudur Owen a Sion a Siân fel rhaglenni sy’n cael eu hanelu at ‘middle class elite’… O na fyddai sianel o’r fath yn bodoli yng Nghymru!! Sign me up…

  9. @Robert Bryn Jones- mae dros hanner y boblogaeth Gymraeg yn byw yn y gorllewin o hyd, dim ond teg yw e bod yna raglenni ar eu cyfer nhw hefyd. Mae’n fater o chwant bersonol; os dydych chi ddim yn hapus gyda’r alwy, yna eich barn chi yw honno ac dw i’n ei pharchu. Ond bob tro dyw rhywun ddim yn hoffi rhywbeth ar S4C, mae’r cyllyll yn dod allan ac mae pobl yn dechrau cyhuddo S4C o fod yn sianel sydd ddim eu gwasanaethu. Un sianel sydd gyda ni, mae cadw pawb yn hapus yn her aruthrol, a pheidiwch ag anghofio am y toriadau ariannol chwaith.

  10. @ Phil Davies

    The media is in a difficult position because it cannot be seen to use its position to do anything other than report what is happening in society. To be seen to be driving its own agenda would result in severe censure from politicians since the media would not be reflecting society but trying to engineer it.

    I agree that a community group would not have sufficient clout to drive any meaningful change. That would have to come from the Assembly. The question is on which case would the Assembly base its position. That would have to come from a combination of audience research and professional expert evidence.

    There is nothing to stop one of the Assembly committees taking evidence on this. But it would be wise to have some form of conference to start the process where audiences and professionals could combine with policy makers to flesh out what the framework of a future service might be. Otherwise there would only be a collection of disparate voices that would have little or no political impact.

  11. A very English notion of being British is in the DNA of the BBC. Ideally there would be a WBC or GDC, that is based in Wales for Wales and picks appropriate BBC broadcasting content and content from elsewhere to show in Wales. A welsh broadcaster with a say in the content that the BBC produces, so that sufficient programming is made by the BBC that is of interest to a Welsh broadcaster. Our news shouldn’t be just about Wales and Welsh interest items – it should have a view of the world, including England Scotland and Northern Ireland, that reflects the demographics and interests in Wales, i.e. not a global view of events with a lens based in London. There will never be enough Wales only stories of merit every day so why can’t we have correspondants from a welsh based organisation describing global events with no need for direct welsh links to be manufactured in – general interest items, such as US presidential elections, what is happening in England for the benefit of Welsh viewers – uninhibited by things that may may be considered controversial in some parts of England perhaps – the views on these things can be very different at either ends of the M4.and usually they are.

    The BBC can’t really morph into something it was never intended to be –BBC Wales will never be a Welsh Broadcaster. For all the talk of nations and regions – BBC Wales, is and always will be a delivery vehicle for regional broadcasting. There are so many paradoxes and contradictions, that maybe the BBC cannot deliver what Wales needs and cannot be the vehicle for that.

    BBC Wales news is no better or worse then Points West or Look North – we simply have different criminals and court cases – sports coverage is tailored a bit more to the audience and Welsh Goverment issues are treated as localised coverage of regional politics. The BBC may aspire to be different, but it can’t be.

    BBC Wales is not a distinctive entity in the BBC – it does not wear it’s heart on it’s sleeve and proudly fly the flag for Wales – except perhaps for a lapse during the six nations or world cup. The BBC is the British Broadcasting Corporation – it has a formula for network wide broadcasting, with some variations built in for the regions. It will never be a broadcaster for Wales – with an ethos derived in Wales, there would be too many contradictions to grapple with. BBC Wales is simply translating programming designed in English-Britain into a Welsh themed variant. In fact the BBC reinforces the notion that Wales is simply another region of the UK (although it may aspire to really understand the distinction between nations and regions , it never will – the clue is in the name and British notions of social cohesion and common values and traditions are fundamental to what it is as an organisation.
    At least what you have with S4C is an attempt to be a broadcaster for Wales, or at least a key demographic component in Wales (the link with the BBC is shameful and retrograde).

    It’s hard to be too critical of S4C which does pretty well, with the budget that it hasn’t got –programming for small kids are done pretty well, because it doesn’t cost much in the scheme of things, but after that the quality and quantity of the output drops off for kids as the age rises. The rest of the programming on S4C is pretty much what you would expect, within the budgetry constraints – low budget in the main (that sometimes work), sprinkled with the odd drama gem , like 35 Diwrnod (apparently). The content simply mirrors the budgets and production costs – if only we had a budget for Welsh broadcasting in general and an overarching concept of what could and should be delivered – devised in Wales for Wales via multiple channels and platforms.

  12. @ Ben S

    Wi’n deall bod S4C yn gweithio o dan amgylchiadau ariannol cyfyngedig ac bod hawl gan gwylwyr Gorllewin Cymru dderbyn rhaglenni ar eu cyfer. Ond mae S4C yn mynnu bod hi’n sianel genedlaethol ac bod yr iaith yn genedlaethol. Y gwir amdani yw bod hi bellach yn sianel ranbarthol. Dyw e ddim yn gyd-ddigwyddiad bod y pencadlys yn symud i Gaerfyrddin, i raddau oherwydd ariannol ond hefyd am resymau polisi iaith. Dyw anghenion y gwylwyr tu fas i’r rhanbarth ddim ar frig y blaenoriaethau.

  13. “There will never be enough Wales only stories of merit every day”

    I wonder if the good folk of Denmark believe there will ever be enough Denmark-only material to justify a Danish national broadcasting service. Oh they do? There is? How can that be? It’s a tiny country…

  14. Phil,

    Fair point and maybe, I could have worded that differently. When I added that bit in, I was thinking about a version of the main news at 10 etc, similar content perhaps, but specifically tailored for the Welsh audience (as the main broadcaster in Denmark and most countries will have). I personally would prefer not to have to listen to ex-school mates of David Cameron, like James Lansdale or a former chairman of the Junior conservatives, like Nick Robinson and I suspect that I’m not alone in that.

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