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.

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