Why ‘the Welsh news on ITV’ matters

Phil Henfrey explains the role of Welsh news for ITV.

A few weeks ago I sat listening to someone very important. Her name is Rhiannon and she has lived her 60-odd years in Aberystwyth. She likes to watch ITV News. There’s nothing unusual in that. Each week the ‘Welsh News on ITV’ – as Rhiannon calls us – reaches 1.5m people in Wales, or half the population. That’s a big number that sometimes gets lost in the debate surrounding a more informed society in Wales.

I was listening to Rhiannon as part of an audience research study. I was there to find out what people think of the ‘Welsh News on ITV’ and also to see why TV News remains the most important source of news, for most people living in Wales, and indeed anywhere in the UK. They didn’t know I was from ITV, or that I worked in the media – and so they didn’t hold back.

Rhiannon and the others in the room were realistic about local coverage. “Not a lot a lot happens around here,” they told the researcher, but when something did they trusted ITV’s Welsh News to tell their story well – accurately, fairly, impartially.

Some felt we didn’t do enough Welsh sport, others thought we did too much.  One or two felt our pronunciations sometimes let us down, others said the warmth of our presentation and our human approach to storytelling was our biggest asset.

Then the researcher began to dig into the detail. To talk about the stories that were relevant to them and to find out why that was. Rhiannon spoke with passion about a school that was fighting plans to sell it’s playing fields; it was not local to her but she thought it was relevant because “education affects us all in Wales”. Another in the group said our recent coverage of ambulance response times mattered to him, not because we featured his area or someone he knew, but because it was about “the NHS in Wales”.

I am not for one moment suggesting that anyone in this group was better informed about the realities of a post devolution Wales because they watched the “Welsh News on ITV”.

But with a UK and a Wales Election taking place within the next 18 months, there is little doubt in my mind that we are making a significant contribution to a better informed society in Wales.

Ofcom research shows that ITV News reaches parts that other broadcasters and media do not reach in Wales. Indeed, their appetite for the Welsh News is growing. Against the toughest of competition, Wales at Six has grown its audience share for the last three years running and it has picked up back-to-back BAFTAs for the quality of its storytelling.

Of course, ITV is not the only commercial broadcaster operating in Wales. A quick look at a TV guide will tell that you that. There are quite literally hundreds of advertising funded channels available to viewers in Wales. But each year, ITV is the only commercially funded public service broadcaster to offer more than 400 news, current affairs and factual programmes that are made in Wales for people living in Wales. No other commercially funded channel comes close to what ITV provides for viewers in Wales.

Now I understand that if you do something well, then people will want you to do more of it and we are not complacent. With the opening of a new, multi-million pound broadcast centre in Cardiff Bay, a new Wales licence for the coming decade and a more secure future thanks to a thriving business, there are realistic opportunities for us to do more than the minimum.

Indeed, we have already started. There’s our contribution in the Welsh language. This year ITV Cymru Wales has made and sold some 30 hours of current affairs and factual programming to S4C. Programmes that support additional jobs and provide an alternative to the BBC in Welsh language current affairs programming.

We want to make more programmes in Wales for viewers across the UK too. Last month the ITV team in Wales made its first current affairs programme to be commissioned and shown on the ITV Network. You have to go back to the previous century to find the last time that happened.

The month before that, My Grandfather Dylan, a commission that started its life for ITV viewers in Wales, became the first programme in 20 years to be shown on the ITV Network and to be made by a Wales-based independent producer, Green Bay Media. I’m confident there will be more to come next year benefiting the wider creative industries in Wales and the jobs they support.

And then there is our investment in digital. Yes Rhiannon and more than 80 per cent of people still see the TV as their most important source of information. But TV News viewers are ageing faster that the population as a whole, which begs the question will the younger adults of today take up the TV habit in the year’s to come?

We do know that increasingly younger adults want news they can trust direct to their mobile device. The growth of ITV’s digital news service is nothing short of spectacular. Launched less than three years ago, it is now accessed by at least 400,000 people a month in Wales, more than doubling in the last six months. This is not a licence requirement, it is more than the minimum and it makes absolute sense for us to continue to invest in it if we are to continue to help people make sense of things in post-devolution Wales.

Phil Henfrey is Head of News & Programmes at ITV Cymru Wales. This is an edited version of a speech given at the Welsh Politician of the Year awards on Tuesday.

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