Plan of Action? Responding to Tony Hall

Ruth McElroy calls for a plan of action for English language TV in Wales

One of the rewards of teaching first-year undergraduates is that you are constantly forced to challenge your own perceptions about the changing nature of contemporary media and society. This year, I noticed a step change in the degree to which a sizeable minority of students seem disconnected from the idea of public service broadcasting in general, and from the BBC in particular. News of the cutting of BBC 3 as a television channel hardly helped matters. The problem is not just one of changing technologies, but of changing attitudes and expectations of what broadcasting as a public service means. The emphasis, to put it crudely, is more on the service (as in serving me with what I want) and much less on the public.

This week on Click on Wales

This week on Click on Wales we’ll be debating English language TV for Wales, asking ‘is it really in decline?’ and looking at how it can move forward. 

Yesterday: Hywel William outlines the facts and figures for the challenges facing TV broadcasting in Wales.

Today: Ruth McElroy calls for a plan of action for resolving BBC Wales and its decline in producing English language TV.

Tomorrow: Claire Hill says Wales should kick up a fuss about English language TV’s decline.

There’s a contradiction between on the one hand, finding that students come to Cardiff from across the UK and Europe because they feel it has become the place to study the media. Even a decade ago, I doubt that we would imagined Cardiff’s television output would become such a draw. On the other hand, I’m finding that some of those same students do not feel intimately engaged with either the BBC or public service broadcasting as something that connects them to society or to the rest of the world. Netflix, and social media do that, or so they tell me.

Now this is a complex problem that isn’t unique to broadcasting alone. But one part of it lies, I think, in the sense that the BBC as an institution continues to feel remote from the lives of many, not just in Wales, but across the UK. This is quite different from saying that individual programmes are not valued, often very highly indeed, by viewers. But the BBC is surely more than the sum of its output; it is also a landmark figure in civil society and in the imaginative life of the nation. The BBC is good at authority, less good at intimacy.

In Wales, since 2008 especially, many have argued that the BBC needs to pay better heed to the realities of post-devolutionary Wales and to the duty it has to serve its people. This can never be a matter of news alone, important though accurate and diverse journalism is to the fledgling democracy of a devolved Wales.  That is why Tony Hall’s recent speech at the National Assembly for Wales seemed positive to me because here was a sense of someone who seemed actually to ‘get it’, as when he stated that ‘there are some aspects of national life in Wales that are not sufficiently captured by the BBC’s own television services in Wales, and I would include comedy, entertainment and culture in those categories’. Even more striking was his acknowledgement that ‘English language programming from and for Wales has been in decline for almost a decade’. Hallujah! You’ve noticed! And it seems, Hall thinks it actually matters.

But if he sounds like a DG who can genuinely understand the problem, then the real question is, what is he and other stakeholders going to do about it?  A published, timed plan of action would really signal a commitment to change of a substantive and long-lasting kind rather than being a nod to sensibilities ahead of charter renewal. For Hall, partnership with a range of arts and media organisations including S4C, Arts Council Wales and Hay Festival is a vital part of the answer. Unsurprisingly, Fiction Factory’s Hinterland (named thus and not as Hinterland/Y Gwyll) was held up as an exemplar. I have been a huge fan of the series in all its iterations, but one crime drama does not a cultural renaissance make. If we want a rich and diverse broadcasting landscape then we will need to find a way of having more than a couple of brilliant stars up front. There’s depth needed in a winning team and that means more than one or two writers, more than one or two dramas, more than one or two genres. Telling us the money’s not there won’t wash. It is an inadequate response and one that sounds fundamentally complacent. The BBC enjoys an unparalleled position of significance in Welsh media. Roath Lock has enjoyed considerable support from viewers and industry workers, providing a powerful instance of Welsh production capacity. But the challenge now is to transform this network success into making a new BBC Wales that has something imaginative and entertaining to say to and about Wales and not just from Wales. Because whilst network successes like Doctor Who and Casualty can provide jobs in Wales (for my students included) what they have not really done is tell us very much about ourselves. A national broadcaster should have something to say, not just something to make.  And if that nation is bilingual, then the stories it tells must be too.

Dr Ruth McElroy is co-director of the Centre for Media and Culture in Small Nations and Director of the Creative Industries Research Institute at the University of South Wales.

3 thoughts on “Plan of Action? Responding to Tony Hall

  1. When I lived in Los Angeles, everybody (as the cliché says) from street cleaner, burger flipper, car valet to drug dealer wanted to be ‘in the movies’ ( ermm…including yours truly – it’s infectious) . It’s not so different now. This is because the rewards of being in the Media (and now TV) were tangible, visible and reasonably well distributed amongst the population. Here in Wales, media people are seen as an ‘elite’ clique and entry into ‘their world’ either as a participant or creative, difficult or impossible (although everybody claims to have been in Pobol y Cwm at some point in its interminable history). It also doesn’t seem to be particularly well paid or worth a supreme effort to enter their narrow world.
    Being in the Media in the US has never been regarded as a community ‘service’; it is a way of earning a (better) living doing something exciting creatively and with the potential of becoming ‘famous’ and with astronomical financial reward if you ‘make it’. It is also supremely competitive – an instinct we seem to eschew.
    If you really want more and more diverse people in Wales media (this applies to all types of Media, film, TV, cultural activity) dispense with the ‘service’, quality, qualifications and rules and chuck out financial carrots by the cart load. You will get crooks and dross (as in the US) but also a renewal of ambition and hope in the young.
    As the author implies, people (not just the youth or technically savvy) are getting their Media content (and entertainment) through channels other than ‘broadcast’ networked TV and this will only increase as high speed ‘broadband’ gets rolled out across more of the population. I notice that people in hospital waiting rooms ( in which I have increasingly to sit hours waiting) today are split now between watching the TV, dozing and browsing their tablet or phone devices when they can get access to Internet connectivity (another bone of contention!).

  2. Excellent article from Ruth and an even better comment from Chris.

    As someone who has made a bit of money from writing over the years, and therefore cannot be entirely without talent, it is astonishing how difficult it is for Welsh writers to benefit from the revolution in television drama that is supposedly happening on our doorstep.

    Having made the same journey to LA as Chris, more than once, he is absolutely right about the difference between LA in Cardiff. Both are, of course, run on the basis of who you know not what you know, but it is actually easier to get to know people in LA!

    They have a saying in LA: “If have a decent script, you can throw it out of your car window on the [Interstate Highway] 405 and it will end up being produced.”

    It is actually easier to meet producers, agents, and executives, even big names, in LA than to get meetings with middle-rank desk jockeys in Cardiff, or London where the real decisions are still made.

    With a couple of very honourable exceptions, the BBC is particularly unwelcoming. Rejection is part of the business, and those who survive in it do so on the Darwinian principle of developing skin like a rhino, but one can only imagine how many sensitive youngsters are put off by the Beeb’s standard “Never darken our door again, you upstart peasant.”

    No organisation has a higher opinion of itself than the BBC – and less to back it up. Despite some signs of recent improvement, the BBC lost the initiative in the production of quality drama to the States in the 80s. Quality European drama demonstrates that it is falling even further behind.

    For real cutting edge stuff, look at what some of the youngsters are putting up on YouTube. Yet any of those youngsters living here is unlikely to find a voice in our “public service broadcaster.” The best advice to those young people is “Go West.”

    Perhaps the best thing that could happen is for an American company to produce a major series here, and do for Wales what ‘Xena’ did for the New Zealand film industry and ‘Game of Thrones’ seems to be doing for Ireland. Lord Hall is saying the right things, but the BBC bureaucracy is never going to launch a cultural revolution here.

  3. BBC Wales needs to get right in there and tackle some of the big issues in Welsh society. Attitudes to the Welsh language. The economy – are we really not entrepreneurs? Do we really lack ambition? The lack of democracy in Wales and lack of engagement in civil society (demonstrated by the lack of understanding about the BBC’s public service role amongst young people as mentioned above, but a problem definitely not reserved to the young or to the understanding of the BBC’s role). Present these problems in an accessible way that appeals to all – a massive challenge but one which, if mastered, will be real public service broadcasting in English for Wales. Make programmes which make us think. Don’t reserve politics to traditional format political programmes which have their place but are dull and assume too much prior knowledge. I think we are also all a bit bored of so and so goes round Wales to do such and such. Or yet another landscapey/Welsh wildlife/Welsh history thing (nice though these programmes are). It’s all a bit “steady ship” and samey. Fresh ideas come from fresh legs, inside and outside of the broadcasters in Wales. We need to make things dynamic, interesting, vibrant, challenging. Where are the new indies in Wales?

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